32 presumed dead in Quebec fire, 10 confirmed

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L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) -- The owner of a Quebec seniors' residence that burned to the ground offered his condolences Sunday to the families of the 32 people feared dead as search crews had trouble recovering any more bodies in the ice-covered rubble due to the frigid temperatures and swirling snow. Officials have so far have recovered 10 bodies from the massive fire.

The Sunday afternoon Mass gave residents of the Quebec town 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.

Roch Bernier, the owner of the Residence du Havre, received a standing ovation from the more than 1,000 people in attendance as he stood up to speak at the Mass.

"What you're living inside, we are living it inside as well," he told the gathering. "We will try to find the strength to get through this."

Bernier later spoke to reporters, but declined to take questions.

"That gentleman there showed tremendous courage," said Mayor Ursule Theriault as she wiped away tears at a news conference.

"He's been deeply affected by this, but he spoke to us, and I think that's what marked me the most today."

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 that was just one possibility among many.

Quebec police said poor visibility, blowing snow and frigid conditions forced authorities to temporarily suspend searches early Sunday - the fourth day of the excruciating search. Police later resumed the search, a day after the remains of only two more people were pulled from the rubble.

"It makes the work quite difficult. We had to make our rotations shorter because it was very cold out there," Quebec Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said.

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 was 60 centimeters (2 feet) thick in certain places.

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

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

A total of 10 bodies have been recovered as of Sunday evening. The coroner's office formally identified a third victim on Sunday - Louis-Philippe Roy, 89. 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.

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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Associated Press Writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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