L'ISLE-VERTE, Que. -- A Quebec village was jolted awake Thursday to the chaos of people scrambling to free neighbours from a seniors' residence as wind-fuelled flames rushed to swallow the building.
Pascal Fillion, who lives near the seniors' home in L'Isle-Verte, said he ran outside to find a group of locals and firefighters already at the scene, trying everything to save the panicked people inside.
For the most part, he said, rescuers felt helpless against a fast-moving blaze with smoke so thick it was nearly impossible to approach the building.
"It was just like straw on fire," Fillion said in the waterfront town of 1,500 people in Quebec's Lower St. Lawrence region.
"People tried to do whatever they could, but the fire was so intense that there wasn't much that could be done...
"I saw people crying, I saw people collapse because they were watching those people burn."
Six months after Canadians were rocked by the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, another Quebec town found itself waiting to learn how many people it had lost after fire ripped through the Residence du Havre.
And just like in Lac-Mégantic, the destruction struck shortly after midnight.
Grim-faced provincial police confirmed five people were dead and another 30 missing after flames consumed part of the 52-unit home.
Fillion said he saw several rescuers drop to the ground after being overwhelmed by smoke during their frantic efforts to get terrified residents out of the building.
At least one attempt, he added, was made to climb a ladder to one man cornered on his third-floor balcony.
"He was crying out for help -- he was screaming," Fillion said.
"I saw him fall to the ground. I saw that the fire had gotten him. He truly died in a horrible way. There was nothing that could be done."
Parts of the three-storey home, which opened in 1997, had sprinklers, while others didn't.
The local fire chief said sprinklers did go off, triggering the fire alarm and allowing firefighters to gain access to about one-third of the building.
Thursday's blaze erupted in the older section of the residence, which a Quebec Health Department document from last July states was constructed of wood.
The document also says the building had a fire alarm and each room was equipped with a smoke detector.
After firefighters had finished taming the blaze, the home's hardest hit area had been reduced to a piece of facade, the fireproof elevator shaft and a mound of rubble that steamed for hours from the heat trapped inside.
The bitterly cold temperatures contrasted with the roaring flames that illuminated the night sky as firefighters poured gallons of water on the burning building.
As morning dawned, the burned section of the facility resembled a macabre ice palace. The structure was covered with huge icicles and sheets of ice, which firefighters said ranged from a few inches to as much as a foot thick.
Officials said the ice complicated the search for the missing, many of whom were over 85.
Fillion said the impact of the fire will affect just about everyone in L'Isle-Verte.
"For us, they were all people everyone knew," he said.
Deputy mayor Ginette Caron said only five residents in the 52-unit centre were fully mobile.
"The rest were semi-autonomous, practically no longer autonomous," Caron told a news conference. "Wheelchairs, walkers, people who can't move around. People with Alzheimer's, in the last stages of life."
At least three people were injured, although the extent of their injuries was unclear.
On Thursday afternoon, Quebec provincial police encouraged relatives of the residents to meet with them at a local school to help in their investigation. A local church was also opened for those who wanted to pray.
A stricken Jacques Berube stood outside the residence as he pondered the fate of his missing 99-year-old mother, Adrienne Dube.
Berube, 70, tried to locate her at a hospital in nearby Rivière-du-Loup as well as at a school in L'Isle-Verte, where residents were initially taken.
He was getting ready to hear the worst about his mother, who is blind but still mobile.
"I went near the building; the corner where her room was is burned," he said. "I'll just have to wait and see. I don't like it. But I don't have any choice. It's just reality."
-- The Canadian Press