L'Isle-Verte (Canada) (AFP) - Canadian firefighters searched the ashes of a Quebec retirement home Thursday after it burned nearly to the ground on a bleak midwinter night, leaving more than 30 residents feared dead.
Officials said the remains of three victims had been recovered and some 30 more were unaccounted for, while the local fire chief said rescuers would continue to search for bodies through the night.
The search and an investigation into the cause of the fire are now hampered by up to a foot of ice covering what's left, after water used to douse the fire froze.
The blaze at the 52-unit home, which housed around 50 to 60 elderly people, half of them over 85 years of age, broke out shortly after midnight.
"We could hear screaming from inside. The fire was intense, it was like a haystack on fire," Pascal Fillion, a neighbor who witnessed it, told French-language public broadcaster Radio-Canada.
By 1.00 a.m. the building "was completely engulfed in flames, which were fanned by the wind," he said.
The home is in L'Isle-Verte, a small town 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Montreal with a population of around 1,400 people.
The town's acting mayor, Ginette Caron, told a news conference that most residents of the home are reliant on caregivers.
She said these include elderly people needing "100 percent care, almost all in wheelchairs, using walkers, or who aren't mobile at all, people suffering from the late stages of Alzheimers.
"The types of services offered here are not found just anywhere. That's what we've also lost," she said.
Authorities said 23 people were evacuated from one third of the building. Thirteen of them were injured, one seriously, and were treated at nearby hospitals.
Two firefighters were also hurt.
Fire chief Yvon Charron said his crew hopes to breach the remaining areas worst hit by the flames in the coming hours "to search for any bodies."
The Red Cross set up a makeshift shelter at a local school where several people rescued from the inferno spent the night, according to a representative, Myriam Marotte.
Some residents might have been away visiting family, or may have taken refuge elsewhere during the blaze and missed being counted, she told local television.
"It's a tragedy for the community and we can only fear that the death toll will rise," Gaetan Lelievre, a provincial minister, told French-language public broadcaster Radio-Canada.
Images broadcast on local television showed flames engulfing the wood-frame building, leaving only a solitary chimney standing by morning.
An adjacent pharmacy and a community center were also destroyed.
A witness said his grandmother "had called her son to come rescue her, but he didn't succeed. He tried to use a ladder to reach her, but she died right there on the balcony."
Neighbor Nancy Charron said she was awakened in the night by sirens and screams: "People shouted: 'Fire! Help! By the time we got there, there was nothing that could be done."
Charron said she and her husband took people in from the cold but their own house was soon evacuated as firefighters struggled to contain the fire with hoses that froze at times.
Her uncle died in the blaze and an aunt is still unaccounted for.
The blaze was fanned by frigid winds of up to 70 kilometers (43 miles) per hour, as the eastern section of North America endures a brutal cold snap after being blanketed by snow.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the injured and the families and friends of those lost in this morning's horrific fire in L'Isle-Verte," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is visiting the Middle East.
"We are holding out hope, but the reality is that there was likely considerable loss of life," he added.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois sent a message from Davos, Switzerland to say she was "profoundly saddened by this tragedy" and vowed government help for the victims and their community.
"It's a human tragedy," said top county official Michel Lagace, describing "the worst possible circumstances" -- a fire in the middle of the night in a care home with minimal staff on hand.
"It's an awful way to die, in the dark and the cold, and afraid," said one of two brothers waiting outside a police ribbon to learn their elderly mother's fate.