Tired rescue workers pause in search for bodies in Quebec blaze

Fri Jan 24, 2014 6:04pm EST
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By Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Exhausted Canadian police and firefighters prepared to break off work for the night on Friday after using steam machines to melt thick ice encasing the bodies of elderly people who died in a retirement residence fire.

Police said eight people died and about 30 were unaccounted for after the blaze ripped through the Residence du Havre in the small community of L'Isle-Verte, about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City, early on Thursday morning.

Teams of police, firefighters and coroner's office officials - dealing with conditions so cold they could only work 45-minute shifts - used steam machines to melt thick ice that had formed after the blaze was doused.

Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said the teams planned to take a break at 7 p.m. eastern and would resume early on Saturday morning.

"Our people are exhausted ... the conditions are very, very difficult," he told a televised briefing, saying police might bring in more equipment. Temperatures in the area hovered around minus 20 C (minus 4 Fahrenheit).

Police said the number thought to be missing might not all be casualties, as it was still unclear how many of the home's residents were in the building when the fire started.

The disaster has already raised demands that the Quebec government require homes for the elderly to be equipped with sprinkler systems, following the lead of neighboring Ontario. Only a part of the L'Isle-Verte residence had sprinklers.

"If the investigation shows that we need sprinklers or new rules, the government will act and bring in the changes for sure," said Jean-Thomas Grantham, spokesman for Quebec Labor and Social Solidarity Minister Agnes Maltais.   Continued...

A firefighter looks on at the seniors residence Residence du Havre after a fire in L'Isle Verte, Quebec, January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger