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Roch Bernier, owner of the Residence du Havre, speaks to the media as he leaves the church after a ceremony in L'Isle Verte, Quebec, January 26, 2014. 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. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters)
Roch Bernier, owner of the Residence du Havre, speaks to the media as he leaves the church after a ceremony in L'Isle Verte, Quebec, January 26, 2014. 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. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters)

Seniors’ home owner makes first public statement at memorial mass Add to ...

When the town showed up to grieve its monumental loss under the ornate Gothic roof of the local church, an unmistakable ripple went through the crowd of several hundred, as the man everyone’s been waiting to hear from got up to speak.

Roch Bernier, co-owner of the Résidence du Havre, hasn’t spoken publicly since a deadly fire ravaged his facility, and wasn’t on the original list of speakers at a mass in the memory of the 32 dead and missing.

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As he rose from a front-row pew and walked to the altar to offer a few words, the mourners stood to applaud.

“I’m here with a heart filled with emotion and also tremendous suffering. My first words are for those who have been lost. These are our people, we called them our residents, but we think of them as our family,” he said, speaking deliberately in a low voice.

The emotion-charged service took place days after a fast-spreading fire tore through half of the L’Isle-Verte seniors’ home, leaving 10 people confirmed dead and 22 others still unaccounted for.

The Quebec coroner’s office has identified three of the victims so far.

Recovery efforts have been complicated by bitterly cold temperatures and high winds that turned into snow squalls Sunday morning.

Over the weekend, officials brought in heavy machines normally used to de-ice ships in their continuing efforts to melt a thick sheet of ice that covered most of the debris after the fire.

A majority of the 32 people believed to have perished in the fire were living in an older section of the Résidence du Havre, according to staff members (the home was built in 1997).

Many of the survivors lived in a newer wing of the building, built in 2002, which was equipped with sprinklers and an outdoor fire escape that several residents used to flee the blaze.

A source said police investigators have demonstrated particular interest in the structure’s building plans.

The central question in this small eastern Quebec town – posed in cafés and living rooms – is a simple one: how could this happen?

In his remarks during the service, Mr. Bernier said “let’s not look left and right for causes,” adding that “there is tremendous sadness in every individual here, but by sticking together we will get through it.”

Mr. Bernier emphasized that he and his business partner and ex-wife, Irène Plante, consider themselves part of the community. “Everything you are living inside, we’re living it too,” he said.

Townsfolk seem to bear little in the way of ill feelings toward Mr. Bernier and Ms. Plante, who was at the facility on the night of the fire.

Lucie Bérubé, whose grandmother Marie-Lauréat Dubé is among the confirmed dead, worked as a nurse in a public health clinic attached to the facility and was particularly effusive in her praise of “Miss Irène” when it was her turn to address the congregation.

Ms. Bérubé took a job at the clinic three years ago specifically because she would get to work with her grandmothers (one of whom passed away before her start date). “I had so much fun being able to see her every day, how proud she was when she sat in the waiting room, telling her friends ‘the nurse is my granddaughter,’” she said.

The gathering was the first chance the town has had to collectively mourn its dead – several dignitaries, including Premier Pauline Marois were on hand – and the event wasn’t short on poignancy.

In delivering his sermon, Father Gilles Frigon said “these events have torn our hearts apart” and that expressing grief is the first step toward healing.

Mourners brought pictures of their dead and missing loved ones, which were attached to billboards set up at the front of the church.

Another public memorial is being planned for next weekend.

After the 90-minute ceremony ended, Mr. Bernier walked out into the icy gale, where he briefly spoke to reporters.

“I am here today to offer my condolences, to spare a thought for the families of the missing and to show them that we are in solidarity with them,” he said.

Asked if he intended to rebuild the home, he said: “I am not answering those questions. It’s not the time today.”

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