Solemn memorial held for Quebec fire victims; Marois calls tragedy 'unacceptable'
Published Sunday, January 26, 2014 7:21AM EST
Last Updated Sunday, January 26, 2014 10:18PM EST
Residents of L'Isle-Verte, Que., gathered at the local church Sunday to mourn the victims of a fierce blaze at a seniors' residence that killed at least 10 people, with another 22 presumed dead.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois attended the solemn mass which began at around 2 p.m., before meeting with first responders, psychologists and social workers who have been offering help and support to the community.
Marois arrived in L'Isle-Verte Sunday morning to offer her condolences, and to see first-hand the results of the fire.
"To all the families who have been affected, I want to offer my friendship, solidarity, and my most sincere condolences," Marois said. "Such things are unacceptable, but at the same time, all possible measures have been taken to provide support for those who have been affected."
Roch Bernier, the co-owner of the seniors' residence, was also in attendance.
Speaking for the first time since the tragic fire, Bernier told mourners he came to offer his condolences and to show solidarity with the community of about 1,500 people.
"We call them our residents, but we can go further than that: they are part of our family," he said inside Eglise de La Decollation-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste. "I have to tell you that it has been very hard for us deal with all of this."
Speaking at a news conference after the mass, Marois said that a working committee has been in place since January 2013, studying security measures available for seniors’ residences. She said her government is prepared to take the necessary measures to increase safety in seniors’ residences.
“We’re evaluating what’s been done so far and what we can do in the future,” Marois said. “If they think we should implement sprinklers, we will do that.”
The Residence du Havre seniors’ home was only equipped with a partial sprinkler system because some residents of the facility were fully autonomous. Sprinklers are currently only mandatory in Quebec facilities where people are not autonomous.
The premier also applauded the efforts of firefighters, police and first responders who have been working at the scene since Thursday.
“For the people who are working on these situations, it’s not easy to do that so I want to say thank you very much,” she said.
At a news conference following the service, L'Isle-Verte Mayor Ursule Theriault also thanked the first responders. She said the tone of the memorial service was difficult to describe in words.
"I'm someone that smiles very naturally, but this afternoon I just couldn't," she said, speaking in French.
She added that she was particularly affected when the owner of the seniors' home spoke and received a standing ovation after his remarks.
"I was looking at myself and saying 'This man has shown us a great courage. He's really affected by this tragedy but he spoke to us.’ That's something that probably marked me the most.
"It's really hard to describe in terms of the emotions," she said, wiping away tears.
Meanwhile, rescue crews are working against harsh weather conditions -- including frigid temperatures, whiteouts and heavy wind gusts -- as they continue to look for bodies. Recovery efforts were temporarily suspended for about three hours on Sunday morning due to the treacherous weather conditions.
A sheet of ice up to 60 centimetres thick has developed over some areas of the rubble, slowing down an already-delicate search process.
In recent days, crews have brought in de-icing machinery that uses steam to melt the ice and will ideally preserve the integrity of the bodies.
“It basically pushes out very hot air, which allows the ice to melt, and we’re hoping that it’s going to allow us to go faster in the search,” Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said.
Lapointe said Sunday afternoon that close to 100 witnesses have been interviewed by investigators, and more interviews are being arranged. He added that while the search teams appreciated having the premier and the mayor express their gratitude, they are mainly concerned for the affected families.
"The main motivation for these people out there right now are the families that are mourning," he said. "Honestly, that's what's really fuelling their motivation. That's who they're working for right now."
The coroner’s office has formally identified three of the victims: Juliette Saindon, 95, Marie-Laureat Dube, 82, and Lous-Philippe Roy, 89.
With files from The Canadian Press