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Grim search begins for victims of nursing home fire

Around three dozen people remain unaccounted for after the blaze.

AUTHORITIES BATTLED HARSH winter conditions today as they began a grim search for victims and the cause of a fire at a Quebec seniors home that killed at least five.

Some three dozen people remain unaccounted for after the blaze a day earlier decimated the three-storey building.

All hotspots were extinguished overnight and teams of policemen, firefighters, officials from the coroner’s office and others started at dawn combing through the structure, Quebec provincial police spokesman Guy Lapointe told a press conference.

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They have brought in an excavator and a steam apparatus to melt a sheet of ice up to a foot thick that blankets the debris.

Huge amounts of water had been used to douse the blaze – enough that townsfolk have been asked to now conserve – and it quickly froze as temperatures plunged to -30 degrees Celsius.

“We have to melt the ice and then we can get the bodies out. It’s very delicate,” Quebec coroner spokeswoman Genevieve Guilbault told public broadcaster CBC.

It takes a little longer to get them out… (but) we’re comfortable that we’ll be able to get them all out.

She that identification of corpses recovered yesterday had begun, using dental records and DNA.

Police have so far confirmed five fatalities from the blaze at the seniors’ home in the small Quebec town of L’Isle-Verte, while three dozen people remained unaccounted for.

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The blaze at the 52-unit residence, which housed around 50 to 60 elderly people, broke out just after midnight Thursday.

Within about an hour, the wood-frame building in the small town 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Montreal, was completely engulfed in flames, according to witnesses.

The blaze was fanned by frigid winds of up to 70 kilometers per hour, as the eastern section of North America endures a brutal cold snap after being blanketed by snow.

Only the fireproof elevator shaft was left standing by morning, with a mound of rubble all around.

An adjacent pharmacy and a community center were also destroyed.

Trapped

Authorities managed to evacuate 23 people from one third of the building.

They are now trying to determine the fate of others who may have been trapped inside. They are also “searching for the cause of the blaze, where it originated, and how the fire spread,” said Lapointe.

But the task is arduous, with extreme cold threatening to freeze equipment and forcing workers to rotate out to warm up at least every hour.

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Lapointe declined to comment on the possible causes of the fire at this early stage of the investigation.

Officials said the building met safety codes, but that has sparked a debate about strengthening regulations.

Initial indications suggest that the oldest part of the building, constructed in 1997, was not equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system.

That section was reserved for independent-living seniors. But Quebec Public Safety Minister Stephane Bergeron explained that some may have been self-sufficient when they moved in and later didn’t wish to move when they started needing assistance.

Nearly two-thirds of the residents are more than 85 years old and many are in wheelchairs, use walkers, suffer from serious diseases including Alzheimers and are reliant on caregivers.

“If there was negligence, if there was a failure, or standards were not met, we’ll take action,” Quebec government minister Agnes Maltais said.

According to local reports, a bit more than one in two seniors residences in Quebec are not equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems.

All pics: The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/AP

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Thirty people still missing hours after fire at home for the elderly>

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