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Fire at Quebec seniors residence leaves 10 confirmed dead, 22 missing

The smouldering remains of a fire at a seniors residence are shown in L'Isle-Verte, Que., Thursday, Jan.23, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
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L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) - Crews resumed searching for the remains of 22 people presumed killed in a fire at a Quebec seniors residence after suspending their activities earlier Sunday due to the frigid temperatures and swirling snow. Officials so far have confirmed 10 dead from the massive fire.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois cut short a trip to Europe to visit the town of L'Isle-Verte on Sunday, where she met with the mayor and went to the scene of Thursday's fire at the Residence du Havre.

The premier told a news conference that everything is being done to provide support for those who survived the fire and to give closure to those still awaiting word on their loved ones. She called the blaze "unacceptable" and said the provincial government is prepared to bring about any changes that are necessary to increase safety in senior residences.

"First of all, we will wait for the inquiry because now, we don't have the results of this evaluation and examination," Marois said. "After that, we will see if there are some new rules to adopt."

Marois said a working committee has been in place for one year studying a number of issues, including whether mandatory sprinklers are necessary in these types of buildings. Quebec's Department of Social Services said the Residence du Havre was up to code and had a proper evacuation plan. A Quebec Health Department document indicates the home, which has operated since 1997, had only a partial sprinkler system. The home expanded around 2002, and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.

"If they recommend to us to change the rules, to change the laws and implement (mandatory) sprinklers, we will do that," Marois said.

The cause of Thursday's blaze remains under investigation. There were media reports that the fire began in the room of a resident who was smoking a cigarette, but police said Saturday that was just one possibility among many.

"It could be a cigarette, it could be a small heater, it could be an electrical problem," Police Lt. Michel Brunet said at a news conference. "We have to be sure at 100 percent."

"We're going to take the time we need," he added.

Meanwhile, a Sunday afternoon Mass was planned to give residents of L'Isle-Verte a chance to gather together to share their grief. Father Gilles Frigon, the town's Catholic priest, called it "a step toward healing" and invited relatives and friends to bring photos of the victims.

"It will be family-oriented and intimate, so that in this tragic event we're going through, we can find ourselves and rebuild our hearts," Frigon said.

A more official memorial ceremony featuring dignitaries has been scheduled for Feb. 1.

Harsh weather conditions continued to hamper the search with Quebec Provincial Police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu saying poor visibility, blowing snow and frigid conditions forced authorities to temporarily suspend searches early Sunday.

Quebec police said later Sunday that they were gradually resuming the search for more victims, a day after the remains of only two more people were pulled from the rubble.

On Saturday, search teams brought in equipment normally used to de-ice ships that pushes out very hot air to melt down ice that police said is as thick as 60 centimeters (2 feet) in certain places.

"You can imagine how difficult it is to go through the ice, melt it, and do it in a way that we preserve the integrity of potential victims," Quebec Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said Saturday.

A total of 10 bodies have been recovered as of midday Sunday. Quebec Provincial Police lowered the number of missing from about 30 to 22 based on more detailed information.

"I think we can all agree here today that the ...people who are still missing, I think we can assume the worst," Lapointe said.

The coroner's office identified two victims on Saturday, Juliette Saindon, 95, and Marie-Laureat Dube, 82. A third person has been identified but his or her name will not be released until Sunday.

About 20 elderly residents survived the fire.

Some were moved to other residences for the elderly in the area, and the Red Cross had raised about C$200,000 ($180,000) to provide clothes, hearing aids, wheelchairs, and other urgent needs.

"Because they left their residence so quickly, they left with nothing," said Myrian Marotte, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "We're looking at providing them with those very urgent articles."

Many of those who died used wheelchairs or walkers, and some had Alzheimer's. Firefighters responded within minutes of getting the alarm but said they could only reach one-third of the building because the fire was too intense.

The tragedy has devastated the town of 1,500 people 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City. Quebec Minister of Social Services Veronique Hivon said many of the village's volunteer firefighters had relatives at the retirement home.

The fire came six months after 47 people were killed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded.

In 1969, a nursing home fire in the community of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, claimed 54 lives.

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