As police and firefighters search the charred and icy ruins of a seniors' home in rural Quebec, there is mounting suspicion the horrific blaze began with a resident's illicit cigarette.
The fire tore through the Résidence du Havre in the early hours on Thursday, killing at least eight people in the 52-room facility. But with dozens of residents still unaccounted for, the tragedy could become one of the worst the country has witnessed in decades.
Recovery workers toiled through the day on Friday, sifting through the wreckage. But low temperatures and the frozen walls of the structure's exterior complicated the search for more victims, forcing workers to halt their efforts Friday evening. Officials said they would resume in the morning.
The town of L'Isle-Verte was largely quiet as residents waited for word about missing friends and family members. Many stayed inside their homes, while a few made brief trips to the site of the blaze, which remained cordoned off by police.
Daniel Saindon said his uncle and two of his father's cousins are believed to have been at the seniors' home the night of the fire and are still missing.
"It's a catastrophe," Mr. Saindon said. "These are the people who worked and lived the majority of their lives in L'Isle-Verte. So we lost something that's extremely valuable. All these people who built the town, who worked so hard."
According to a report by the Quebecor news agency, the night watchman on duty at the time of the fire believes the conflagration began after a resident sneaked a cigarette in his room.
Bruno Bélanger told the agency he is "95-per-cent sure" a man he prevented from stepping outside for a smoke around 11 p.m. – the hour at which the doors are locked and can no longer be opened from the outside – may have decided to light up in his second-floor room.
The long-time Résidence du Havre employee said once he realized a fire had started he did everything he could to evacuate the residents.
The CBC, citing anonymous police sources, also reported the fire began in a resident's room and that smoking was believed to be the cause.
In a statement issued on Friday, Roch Bernier and Irène Plante, the owners of Résidence du Havre, offered their sympathies to the families of the victims and thanked first responders.
"They want to assure the population of Isle-Verte that all efforts will be devoted to helping and co-operating with the authorities who are investigating and helping victims," said a statement from the owners released through a public relations firm.
The statement said Mr. Bernier and Ms. Plante did not know yet if they would rebuild the home and that they would not comment further.
A relative who answered the door at Mr. Bernier's home, a duplex about 10 kilometres east of L'Isle-Verte, said they had been inundated by calls and visitors. "I know everyone wants answers, but there aren't any right now," said the man, who did not want to give his name.
With reports from Sean Gordon and Les Perreaux