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Stories of horror, heartbreak and heroism after fire ravages Quebec seniors' home

Firefighters and investigators look over the scene of a fire at a senior residence home in L'Isle Verte, Que., on Jan. 23, 2014.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

Each witness told a different story of the screams that pierced the night as the L'Isle-Verte fire tore through a seniors' home. Some villagers were woken by cries of help, others simply noted a howling wind.

For Arnaud Côté, it was the cry of an overhead fire alarm that broke his slumber and sent him fleeing in slippers from the burning Résidence du Havre and into the frigid night. But he didn't stay out: Mr. Côté, 82, went back to help his friends find their way through a hallway of black smoke before he finally had to give up.

By Thursday evening, the streets of L'Isle-Verte were nearly deserted as the sun went down, the mercury dropped and the wind whistled off the frozen St. Lawrence, cementing trees frozen into ice sculptures from the thousands of litres of water poured on the fire.

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For the second time in less than seven months, tragedy tore through the heart of a small Quebec town as families gathered to grieve mothers, fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents who are dead or missing in the devastating fire. In July, a train derailed and killed 47 people in a fiery explosion in Lac-Mégantic. As dawn broke on the town of L'Isle-Verte on Thursday, eyes again turned to a tight-knit community coping with a potentially shattering loss of life.

Authorities say five people are dead and another 30 are unaccounted for after a raging fire, whipped by high winter winds, ravaged the 52-unit residence just after midnight. The home's residents were highly vulnerable: Most were over 85 and confined to wheelchairs or walkers or suffering from Alzheimer's. Only the newest portion of the building had sprinklers.

The town's fire chief, Yvan Charron, said the sprinklers went off and that firefighters were able to rescue residents from a third of the building that was left standing. Crews struggled against numbing temperatures that froze their fire hoses.

Unlike Lac-Mégantic, where rail tankers and burning oil wiped out a large chunk of the downtown and contaminated everything left behind, the crater left in L'Isle-Verte is a little bigger than a large suburban yard and mostly visible because of the steady plume of white smoke rising from behind the houses and small businesses that surround it.

Within smelling distance of the smouldering remains, families, firefighters and police officers gathered privately in the elementary school. Children could be seen chasing a ball in a gymnasium while their parents dealt with grief.

In the midst of tragedy, stories emerged from L'Isle-Verte of horror, heartbreak and heroism at the residence, located in the centre of the village, 230 kilometres down river from Quebec City.

When the fire broke out, an orderly pounded on doors and told people to get out, Mr. Côté said. When Mr. Côté's rescue effort was over and he finally paused outside the home, he said the entire ground level was red with flames.

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"I got out in better shape than anybody," said Mr. Côté, who planned to spend the next several nights at a local motel. "Maybe it's just that I'm younger than anybody else."

The fire also brought heart-rending scenes of children trying to save their parents, and others scrambling to find out if they were still alive.

Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the residence, said he saw one of his neighbours, Jean-Eudes Fraser, try in vain to bring a ladder to rescue his mother from a third-floor balcony inside the complex.

Mr. Michaud said Mr. Fraser was able to place the ladder but couldn't get to his 88-year-old mother, Angéline Guichard, because the flames were too intense.

"He couldn't reach her. She burned on the balcony. Her boy, he broke down. It wasn't pretty," Mr. Michaud said.

Mr. Fraser had to be taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, his brother, Joseph-Marie, said in an interview.

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"It's a shock for everyone. Some are still looking for their parents but we're certain that our mother has died. She was on the balcony and there was too much smoke. … The building has collapsed, so she's still in the rubble," Joseph-Marie said.

Bibiane Côté-Mignault was awoken by a phone call alerting her to the fire at the home, where her mother lived. She gathered some blankets for warmth and rushed to the town school, where some families had gathered. A half-hour later, a school bus brought in a handful of survivors from the home.

She raced onto the bus. Her mother was not on it.

"That's when we knew she died in the fire," Ms. Côte-Mignault said. "My mother was 92 but she was still lively. I played bingo with her on Monday. We didn't want to see her leave this way."

According to provincial filings, Roch Bernier and Irène Plante are the owners of the property, which opened in 1997.

Philippe Lépicier and his wife, Marie-Hélène Miousse, own the pharmacy that was located in the older section of the Résidence du Havre. While his pharmacy is a total loss, Mr. Lépicier's thoughts are with the residence's tenants, whom he came to know since he took over the business in 2006. A number of them were mobile enough to walk to the store; over the holidays, they loved to buy Christmas decorations for their walkers.

"You know, they would talk to us about more than their health. They would tell us about their kids, their families," Mr. Lépicier said.

After sundown, Mr. Côté shuffled alone down deserted Saint Jean Baptiste Street, heading toward the local second-hand store to buy some warm clothes. He was wearing a fleece-lined windbreaker and a cap in -19 weather.

The retired dairy farmer, who has lived and worked in the parish for his entire life, moved into the home seven years ago. His eyes welled up in the cold as he described how the home was filled with his friends.

"You know, it's most of a generation in this parish, gone," Mr. Côté said. "Life goes on. Life goes on. It's terrible, it's all people I knew."

Mr. Côté has no family in the immediate area, but he is well-known. When he walked into the store, Thérèse Rioux, who was working behind the counter, jumped. She did not know he had survived. "When I saw him walk in, I thought I was dreaming," she said.

Ms. Rioux works as a volunteer at the store she created to raise money for local charities. She knew almost all of the residents of the home, who would come in regularly to peruse knickknacks or look for small gifts for their grandchildren among the toys. "There's a big hole in my heart right now," she said.

Mr. Côté picked out a beige sweater and colourful scarf. Ms. Rioux tried to refuse his money, but he insisted. She took $3. Mr. Côté refused a ride, and set back out alone into the cold night.

With reports from Sophie Cousineau in Montreal and Tu Thanh Ha in Toronto

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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