Fire crews in Quebec used steam to melt the ice encasing the charred rubble of a seniors home on Friday as they searched for victims of a blaze that killed at least eight people and left some 30 others missing, authorities said.
The death toll inched up from five to eight late Friday as three teams of firefighters, forensic technicians and experts from the coroner’s office used steam to thaw the ice-caked wreckage at the Residence du Havre in the small village of L’Isle-Verte. They had put out the last traces of the blaze overnight, said Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy LaPointe.
“The steam allows us to melt the ice and proceed forward,” he said. “And most importantly, preserve the integrity of individual victims.”
The teams rotated in shifts because of the severe cold. Authorities were looking at bringing in more equipment and adjusting their approach “to be as efficient as possible,” he said, noting that not many people had the expertise to do such work.
“People are exhausted,” LaPointe said. “The conditions are very, very difficult. It’s very precise work.”
Authorities haven’t determined the cause of the fire, which erupted about 12:30 a.m. Thursday in the community along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Neighbors described a rapidly moving blaze, saying they saw some of the home’s residents jump from the building and one man try to save his elderly mom by climbing up a ladder.
The cold has hampered efforts since the blaze began: it froze some of the water that firefighters tried to use to extinguish the fire and left behind ice-caked wreckage, slowing efforts to determine the number of victims, said LaPointe. He said he couldn’t give a time frame for when their work would be done.
“The cold is extreme, the equipment could freeze. We could run into other issues,” he said.
Authorities are trying to verify if all of the 52-unit home’s residents were at the three-story complex during the fire and if they had overnight visitors, he added. It is considered all but a certainty the number of those who perished in the blaze will climb dramatically.
“We want to give the right number,” he said in French. “The priority is to determine the exact number of people who were there.”
Ten people were injured in the blaze. Eight of them were being treated at a local hospital for burns, falls, smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning, health officials said, while two others were flown to a trauma center for emergency treatment.
The fire's fury raised questions about whether the complex, built in 1997, had functioning sprinklers. According to the residence’s website, the building has a fire alarm zone, smoke detectors in every room and sprinklers.
Yves Desjardins, who helped build the complex, told CBC News that only a newer annex built in 2002 had a sprinkler system. A certification on file with Quebec's Health Ministry says the home has a partial system and that the building was constructed entirely of wood.
Veronique Hivon, Quebec’s minister of social services and youth protection, said the building was up to code and the most recent fire drill resulted in full evacuation of the building in eight minutes. She said officials were looking at ways to prevent any similar tragedies in the future.
In the meantime, the community grappled with the loss.
Authorities went door-to-door on Thursday to check on townspeople and how they were coping.
"It was frightening," said Yvette Michaud, 73, who watched the fire from her home with her husband. She said she was shaking as she watched the blaze, thinking about her friends inside. "It's so dreadful."
"It's a village. Everyone knows each other,” said Collette St. Laurent, 77, who lives near the home. “It's heartbreaking, so heartbreaking."
NBC News’ Katy Tur contributed to this report.