L'ISLE-VERTE, Qc - Many of the 30 people unaccounted for in a fatal fire in a seniors residence northeast of Quebec City had limited movement and were confined to wheelchairs and walkers, a local official said Thursday.
The early-morning fire in L'Isle-Verte killed three people, although authorities fear the death toll will climb.
Town official Ginette Caron said only five residents in the 52-unit centre were fully autonomous.
"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 in the blaze in the town of about 1,500. The extent of their injuries was unclear.
Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the building, said he witnessed the drama unfold shortly after midnight.
"I got up to go to the toilet and I saw smoke," Michaud told local newspaper Info Dimanche.
"The fire had started on the second floor. I woke up my girlfriend and called 911. I saw the firefighters and they got to work.
"A woman on the second floor was shouting and she went out on to the balcony. Her son went to get a ladder but he couldn't get to her. She burned to death."
Local chief firefighter Yvon Charron called it "a night from hell."
Provincial police Sgt. Ann Mathieu said the fact 30 people are missing does not necessarily mean they are all dead.
"Some people may have gone elsewhere and there may have been people staying with family," Mathieu said.
She urged people who have any information on people considered missing to call police.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois expressed her sympathy from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Summit.
"I want to extend my condolences to all the families affected by this terrible fire," Marois said. "I have been in touch with my office and we are doing everything we can to support the community and families.
"It's a private centre but we're talking about human beings, so we'll do whatever we can. I am deeply saddened by this event."
The building was home to more than 50 people and also housed a social agency, a pharmacy and a hair salon.
Several fire departments in the region were called in to help extinguish the blaze, which completely destroyed the building.
Canada has experienced a number of similar tragic fires in recent years.
One in Hawkesbury, Ont., in May 2012 claimed the lives of two people, while one person died in a seniors' apartment building in London, Ont., last October.
A blaze in June 2009 at a retirement residence in Orillia, Ont., killed four people and left six elderly residents critically injured.
A coroner's inquest following the fire made 39 recommendations related to automatic sprinklers in retirement homes and assisted living centres.
That led to a new law in Ontario, which took effect on Jan. 1, requiring all retirement homes in the province to have automatic water sprinkler systems.
Elsewhere, a fire at a retirement home in Langley, B.C., in April 2012 left a man dead and sent several other residents to hospital. And a woman in her 70s died in a fire at an Edmonton seniors residence in August 2012.
In August 1980, 21 one people was killed and 35 were injured in a fast-moving nursing home fire in Mississauga, Ont. Authorities said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation and extreme heat in the facility, which housed 198 residents.
In December 1976, fire raced through a two-storey nursing home in Goulds, NL, killing 22 people, including a 105-year-old woman.
The wood frame building in the community just south of St. John's was home to as many as 30 elderly persons.