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Quebec premier: fatal fire in seniors' residence 'unacceptable'

Source: Reuters - Sun, 26 Jan 2014 06:14 PM
Author: Reuters
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(Fixes headline, adds "PIX" to slug)

By Randall Palmer

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on Sunday said a fatal fire in a seniors' residence was "unacceptable" but stopped short of saying her government would make sprinklers mandatory in homes for the elderly.

Authorities fear 32 people died early on Thursday when fire ripped through the Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte, a town of 1,500 people some 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City in eastern Canada.

"It's completely unacceptable that these things happen," Marois told reporters after arriving in the town.

"These are events we very much don't want to happen, and so we have to do everything possible to make sure they don't happen again," she added.

Despite media reports alleging that a cigarette ignited the blaze, police say they still do not know the cause.

Only part of the residence was equipped with sprinklers. Quebec law does not require sprinkler systems in residences where the occupants have some mobility.

Marois said she would wait for the results of the inquiry into the blaze and the report of a committee examining the question of sprinklers before deciding what to do next.

"If they recommend to change the rules and change the law and implement sprinklers, we will do it ... but we will take the time to do that very well and not do it (as) an emergency," she said, speaking in English. Police say it could take months to find the cause.

Earlier in the day, high winds and driving snow forced Quebec police to suspend their search for bodies in the ice-clad ruins of the three-storey wooden residence.

Specialist teams at the fire site had worked through the night, using steam and a machine blowing hot air in a bid to melt ice that in some places was 2 feet (60 cm) thick.

L'Isle-Verte was due to hold a memorial service starting at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Sunday.

Ten bodies have been recovered and 22 people are still missing.

The disaster seems to have touched everyone in the town.

"It's a terrible tragedy. But we have to keep going, one step at a time," said Marco Gagnon as he helped customers at a grocery story carry their bags out into the wind.

"It's going to leave a big hole in the village. That's 2 percent of the population," he told Reuters.

Most of the 50 or so residents were over 85, and many needed to use wheelchairs or walkers, town officials said.

TOO EARLY TO APPORTION BLAME, SAYS QUEBEC PREMIER.

Grocery store owner Christian Morin paused after mopping the floor to reflect on two of his relatives who perished - an 82-year-old aunt and an uncle in his early 90s.

"What frustrates me is these people went to finish their days in peace, but to finish in this way... ," he said, his voice trailing off.

His aunt was able to walk and lived on the ground floor but still died in the blaze, which firefighters say was fanned by unusually high winds.

Marois cautioned against trying to apportion blame.

"We have to be very careful at this point not to draw conclusions, not to pass judgments. Wait for the inquiry to finish. Rumors don't help anyone, or blaming this or that person. It's not the time for that," she said.

Town officials and residents interviewed by reporters have said the residence was clean and appeared to be well run. The residence says on its website that it won provincial awards for good service in 2004 and 2006.

The memorial service will be led by local priest Gilles Frigon, who said the church wanted to help rebuild the hearts of the community.

"We celebrate with them but when they suffer, we suffer," he told reporters tearfully on Saturday. A larger public mass is due to be held in the town on Feb. 1.

A spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not immediately respond when asked whether Harper would attend the Feb. 1 event.

The disaster looks set to be the second-worst to hit a Canadian seniors' home after a 1969 blaze in Quebec killed 54 people.

Marois plans to be present at the service to mark the province's second calamity in a matter of months.

In July 2013, a runaway tanker train carrying light crude from North Dakota's Bakken region derailed and exploded in the heart of the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47. (Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Jeffrey Hodgson, Sophie Hares and Jonathan Oatis)

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