At the edge of the burned-out wreckage of the Résidence du Havre, investigators crouch on their hands and knees, carefully sifting through the debris of the Quebec seniors’ home.
Their job is to alert the coroners’ office and a forensic team at the first sign of human remains. Less relevant items are pushed aside and raked, shovelled or carried to one of several piles surrounding the building.
Reporters in L’Isle-Verte got a first look at the site of the investigation on Tuesday, nearly a week after a massive fire ripped through the seniors’ residence in the early hours of the morning. Police say 17 people are confirmed dead and 15 are unaccounted for as officials continue to comb through the icy wreckage.
About 50 firefighters, police officers and investigators from the coroners’ office are working 10 to 12 hours a day, said Martine Asselin, a spokeswoman for the Quebec provincial police. The same workers are coming back each day to ensure continuity, she said.
“It’s very precise work that they need to do,” she said. “Going through everything that was in the room. ... We saw some freezers, we saw some washing machines. So every room has a lot of articles that we need to go through.”
Officials brought specialized equipment last week to help melt the thick ice on the burned-out building. They have covered much of the area with tarps and are pumping warm vapour beneath the plastic. Steam rises from beneath the billowing white and blue tarps, and the smell of ashes is still in the air.
Recovery workers have made it through 60 to 75 per cent of the wreckage, Sergeant Asselin said. She could not say how long the search will take.
The blaze destroyed only the older section of the building. A newer wing, built in 2002 and outfitted with sprinklers and a protective wall to prevent fires from spreading, still stands. A brick wall between the two wings is streaked with soot. Fire-proof doors connecting the two sides of the building are visible on the first and second floors.
The eastern Quebec town was hit hard by the fire, which affected nearly everyone in the tightly knit community of less than 1,500 people. Many residents lost several friends and family members.
Shortly after the fire, police erected opaque fencing around the building, obstructing the view of the recovery efforts. Officials also set up a wider perimeter that residents and reporters were not allowed to access and closed off the road that leads to the building entrance.
Sergeant Asselin said morale on the site has been good, despite the bitter cold temperatures, freezing winds and the grim work.
“Everyone has the same goal: finding all of the bodies,” she said.