L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — In the wintry days since a fire swept through the retirement home in this quaint, rambling village along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, L’Isle-Verte has been overrun by police officers, firefighters, coroners, and anthropologists, painstakingly chipping away at the layers of ice encasing the building and digging through the charred ruins.
When they finish, the death toll of the Jan. 23 fire at the home, Résidence du Havre, is expected to reach 32.
Nearly everyone in this town of 1,425 people has been affected in some way: the families of those who died; the police officers who arrived in the early morning hours and crawled down hallways to avoid smoke, dragging elderly residents out on their backs; the firefighters who doused the blaze with water, the spray instantly freezing in the minus-8-degree cold, entombing the bodies in more than 2 feet of ice.
For the province of Quebec, the tragedy evoked a particularly horrible sense of déjà vu. It came nearly seven months after a runaway oil train exploded into a fireball in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people in a town of 6,000 some 245 miles away.
The inferno tore through a popular bar on a Friday night, stealing much of Lac Mégantic’s youth. In L’Isle-Verte, the fire took the town’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Its victims range in age from Marie-Lauréat Dubé, 82, to a resident whose body has yet to be found, age 99. Any hope that the missing will be found alive has long since passed.
Many of the police officers and recovery workers still battling the ferocious wind and biting cold to find traces of the victims in L’Isle-Verte performed the same role in Lac Mégantic’s summer heat.
“Lac Mégantic was my very first case like that, and I thought that it would be the last,” said Lt. Michel Brunet, chief communications officer who has served with the Sûreté du Quebec police for 37 years. “Now, seven months later, I’m here again.”
Before the fire, L’Isle-Verte was known mainly as a place tourists drive past by on their way to the Gaspé Peninsula. Some tourists come to go whale watching. Wide, deep, and tidal, the St. Lawrence is more ocean than river at this point.
But like many of the towns and villages along its shoreline in the Bas St. Laurent region, northeast of Quebec City, L’Isle-Verte is richer in history and natural beauty than economic opportunity. Aside from tourism, a largely summer phenomenon, the region depends heavily on farming, forestry, and arcane trades including eel fishing. Depopulation for more than a decade has left the area with a median age of 48 compared with 42 for the province.
Cold, wind, and distance — L’Isle-Verte is 120 miles from Quebec City — tend to keep outsiders away.
The wind, now frustrating the recovery effort, also gave the Résidence du Havre fire its unusually deadly and swift intensity. Soon after the fire started, about 12:30 a.m., the three-story frame building was ablaze. Neighbors told reporters that they had heard cries for rescue from residents trapped by flames, and some victims, police and coroners believe, jumped to their deaths.
Little remains of the portion of the home that was engulfed by the fire. Inside the recovery zone, the skeleton of its entrance is still recognizable, but it leads to a charred pit mixed in with the remains of tiled floors. A blackened walker, charred medical notes, and the steel frames of chairs and beds testify to the life that existed here.
The villagers, unaccustomed to being the focus of attention and never partial to sharing with outsiders, have largely kept their grief to themselves.
At a news conference for local reporters in the back of a motel banquet room Monday, Mayor Ursule Thériault was blunt. “L’Isle-Verte would be better without journalists,” she said. Another municipal official urged residents to not answer their doors for journalists or, better still, leave town until the last of the television network satellite trucks had driven away.
Not long after the fire, news outlets reported that a cigarette smoked indoors by a 96-year-old resident started the blaze. The police later called that report premature and inaccurate, but the town was outraged by the insinuation that one of the fire’s victims had been its cause. Since then, no one has spoken to the news media.
Despite the exceptional tragedy there has been little criticism of the owners of the Résidence du Havre. The burned-out portion of the 1997 building did not have sprinklers, which are not required under Quebec law. In a stark illustration of their value, an addition to the home built in 2002, which was equipped with sprinklers, remains standing, its occupants alive.
Before they stopped speaking to journalists, many villagers had praised the home’s operation and said they were grateful that it allowed them to keep elderly family members nearby.
Last Sunday, the home’s co-owner, Roch Bernier, offered a tribute to the dead in the village’s large, silver-steepled church. He was roundly applauded.