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Victims in L’Isle-Verte tragedy mourned

PM among attendees at memorial service

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L’ISLE-VERTE, Que. — Gilles Moyen entered the church Saturday in the Quebec village of L’Isle-Verte with two goals — to honour 32 victims of a deadly fire at a seniors home and to find the man who saved his mother from that same inferno.

Moyen was among about 900 people inside the impressive Roman Catholic church to remember those who died, or are presumed dead, after a powerful blaze destroyed part of the seniors residence on Jan. 23.

Loved ones and neighbours joined many dignitaries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Pauline Marois, for the hour-long ceremony.

For Moyen, there was one person in particular he hoped to see.

A man named Arnaud Côté, who lived at the Residence du Havre, has been credited with rushing to save the lives of three fellow residents, as the overnight fire quickly consumed the building around them.

Côté, 84, has said he awoke to the roar of sirens and immediately understood the gravity of the situation from the haunting screams of his trapped neighbours.

He woke up three women and ushered them out the doors to safety. Among them was Moyen’s 87-year-old mother, Jeannette D’Auteuil, who suffers from hearing loss.

"Without him, my mom would be gone — I’m almost sure of it," Moyen, who hails from the region but now lives in a Montreal suburb, said before the ceremony.

"So, I must thank him."

Moyen, who was almost certain his mother had died in the fire when he first heard about it, said she already had the chance to see Côté after the disaster.

"She said, ‘When I saw him (Côté) I jumped into his arms,’ " Moyen said. "She thanked him for waking her up."

So many families with loved ones at the residence in L’Isle-Verte, about 250 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, were not nearly as fortunate.

Local priest Gilles Frigon paid tribute to the deceased inside the 159-year-old church, saying in his homily nobody deserved to die that way.

"I want to thank all those who have prayed for us all across the country," Frigon said.

"This has allowed us to open our hearts, to get back up... and to become better men and women."

Photos of the victims graced a billboard at the front of the church, and, near the altar, organizers had placed a rocking chair, a shawl, a hat and a bouquet of 32 roses.

Pierre-André-Fournier, archbishop of Rimouski, praised the work of first responders, with the presence of an ambulance uniform, a firefighter’s helmet and a police officer’s cap at the front of the church symbolizing their efforts.

After the ceremony, Harper gave a statement to reporters outside the church, only a couple of hundred metres from the charred remains of the devastated seniors home.

"We’re all here to express all our condolences and our sympathy to the victims, to their families and to the entire community here," Harper said.

"This is a very beautiful place, but this is a very big tragedy. It’s something that everybody can identify with. We all have, or have had, parents, grandparents who become elderly, who are terribly vulnerable. And when we see something like this, it breaks the heart of everybody."

Quebec’s premier also honoured the victims in front of the church following the service.

"I hope that will allow people to find peace again in a community that has suffered so much," said Marois, who requested flags on government buildings fly at half-mast on Saturday.

"I feel like telling the community, ‘Look after the people who are still here, who are around you.’ "

Officials, who have not yet announced the cause of the blaze, said Saturday 27 people have been declared dead and five others were still unaccounted for and presumed dead.

Crews continued their search Saturday for the remains of those still missing.

— The Canadian Press

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