The only known survivors of the older wing of a Quebec seniors' home were forced to jump to safety from their upper-floor apartments when a massive fire engulfed the building.
Colette Lafrance leaped from her balcony, and Conrad Morin climbed down his bed sheets and dropped to the ground, their relatives told The Globe and Mail on Monday. Fourteen people are confirmed dead and another 18 are unaccounted for as police continue a painstaking search of the icy wreckage of the Résidence du Havre, which caught fire in the early hours of last Thursday.
A staff member who worked at the L'Isle-Verte seniors' home said she believes most of those who survived were living in a newer section of the building that was constructed in 2002. The new wing was outfitted with sprinklers and other fire-safety measures and is still standing.
The blaze has raised questions about the adequacy of provincial rules that govern fire safety in seniors' homes across Canada, many of which are not required to have sprinkler systems. Provincial Health Minister Réjean Hébert said on Monday that Quebec would consider speeding up plans to require sprinklers at all seniors' homes in response to the Résidence du Havre blaze.
A special committee including police and building experts was formed last year to look at tightening the rules for sprinklers in privately run homes, Mr. Hébert said, adding the plans remain a priority for the government.
Staff members who were familiar with the building's structure said a wall between the two wings had been designed to help prevent the blaze from spreading and allowed many residents in the newer section to escape unharmed. It had doors that shut automatically when the building's fire alarm was activated. In addition to a sprinkler system, the newer portion of the building had an exterior staircase, which several people used to escape, according to Arnaud Côté, who survived the blaze.
Nicole Bélanger, one of about two dozen staff who worked at the seniors' home before the fire, said the building had an evacuation plan to deal with fires and held regular drills to ensure residents were prepared for an emergency.
"But they did the practices during the day, when there were a lot of attendants, a lot of staff on hand. And this time, it had to happen overnight. These people take pills to fall asleep, they can't just wake up abruptly," she said. "It was very fast, the fire."
Of the 52 people who were living in Résidence du Havre before the fire, many had limited mobility. Some used wheelchairs, while at least one woman was blind and a man was deaf, factors that would have made it difficult for them to escape during an emergency.
Ms. Lafrance lived on the third floor of the older wing. When the 80-year-old heard the fire alarm, she rose from her bed and rushed to the door, her nephew Gilbert Lafrance said. But the hallway was choked with smoke, making it impossible to breathe, let alone get to the stairs to the exit.
Ms. Lafrance jumped onto the second-floor balcony below. Firefighters encouraged her to jump from there. She did not have any serious injuries, her nephew said.
Mr. Hébert said he learned that Mr. Morin had escaped by tying bedsheets together and using them to lower himself from his upper-level apartment. Anna Beaulieu, Mr. Morin's cousin, said the sheets were not long enough, forcing him to drop the rest of the way to the ground. He broke a rib in the fall, but is recovering in hospital, Ms. Beaulieu said.
Recovery efforts in L'Isle-Verte have been slow, with workers facing bitter cold and high winds. Officials brought in heating machines to help melt a thick layer of ice on top of the destroyed building.
The extent of the fire damage has complicated efforts to identify victims, officials said, and the coroner has sent many remains to Montreal for identification.
"It was a big fire," Lieutenant Michel Brunet said when asked about the difficulty of recovering bodies. "You just have to imagine the condition that some of them were in."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to visit L'Isle-Verte on Saturday for a ceremonial mass in memory of those who were killed.
Verity Stevenson is a freelance reporter for The Globe and Mail.