At least three people died and 30 were missing after a fire ripped through a wooden three-story residence for the elderly in the Eastern Canadian province of Quebec overnight, police said on Thursday.
Fanned by high winds, the fire engulfed the Residence du Havre in the small community of L'Isle-Verte on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City.
Acting Mayor Ginette Caron said many of the residents had used wheelchairs or walkers. According to a document filed with the Quebec health ministry, the residence was home to 52 people, 37 of whom were 85 or older.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight (0500 GMT) and was extinguished about five hours later. At midday, clouds of smoke still billowed from the residence, more than half of which was completely burned to the ground.
Police told reporters at noon that they still had not been able to get into the ruins. They kept media some 75 meters (80 yards) from the scene.
Undamaged parts of the building were covered in icicles and thick sheets of ice, testament to temperatures that dropped as low as minus 22 Celsius (minus 7.6 Fahrenheit).
"Right now 30 people are missing. Three are confirmed dead," Quebec police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu told a televised briefing.
"That does not necessarily mean 30 people have lost their lives. It's possible that some were relocated with other people. Some might be away with their families," she said.
The document filed with the Quebec health ministry said the residence had a partial sprinkler system. The residence's website said it had a sprinkler system but gave no details.
Eyewitness Pascal Fillion told public broadcaster RDI that at 1 a.m. a large part of the building was already on fire, due in part to the high winds.
"There was one person we saw, who they wanted to save, but he was on the top floor, and with the fire and the wind they weren't able to come any closer," Fillion said.
Video footage of the blaze showed huge sheets of flame leaping into the air.
The residence's website says the building was built in 1997 and expanded in 2002, and that it had sections for people who were independent and semi-independent, and for those who needed more assistance.
The ambulance service said 13 people had been taken to hospital. Public broadcaster RDI said a further 16 had been transported to other locations.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said she was "deeply saddened" by the tragedy and sent several government ministers to the site to offer assistance.
One man described to RDI how his grandmother had called for help from a second-floor balcony and said efforts to reach her by ladder failed. "She died on the balcony," he said, his voice breaking.
Last July, 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, about 400 km southwest of the site of Thursday's fire.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Galloway)