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September 20, 2014

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Quebec fire bodies search temporarily suspended

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Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

A police investigator, enveloped in steam, signals to colleagues as they search through the icy rubble of a fire that destroyed a seniors’ residence Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in L’Isle-Verte, Quebec.

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — Snow squalls and frigid temperatures Sunday forced authorities to temporarily suspend the effort to recover another 22 people presumed killed a day after crews pulled just two more bodies from the ice-covered rubble of a Quebec seniors' home. Officials have confirmed 10 dead from the massive fire.

Quebec provincial police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu said authorities are waiting for the weather to improve before resuming the search.

Meanwhile, a Sunday afternoon Mass was planned to give residents of the small town of L'Isle-Verte a chance to gather and 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.

The cause of Thursday's blaze at the Residence du Havre 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.

Frigid temperatures continued to hamper the search with Mathieu saying poor visibility, blowing snow and frigid conditions forced authorities to temporarily suspend searches early Sunday. Quebec Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said Saturday the ice in certain places was as thick as 60 centimeters (two feet).

Search teams brought in equipment normally used to de-ice ships that pushes out very hot air.

"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," Lapointe said. "So it's very difficult work again today. It's very cold."

A total of 10 bodies have been recovered. 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.

Teams of police, firefighters and coroners methodically picked their way through the ruins of Residence du Havre, working in shifts in the extreme cold.

Spray from firefighters' hoses had left the home resembling a macabre snow palace.

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 were confined to wheelchairs or used 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.

Hivon said the home 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.

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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