01/26/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/27/2014 05:59 EDT

L'Isle-Verte Fire Survivors Describe Narrow Escape

Nelida Pettigrew always had boots, a scarf and a warm coat ready at the door, just in case.

Her daughter made a point of ensuring that if Pettigrew ever needed to leave her room at the Résidence du Havre in a hurry, she would be properly dressed.  

Last Thursday morning, when she realized the alarm bells echoing through the hallways weren’t triggered in error, Pettigrew threw on those warm clothes and escaped with the help of a neighbour.

She is one of only about 20 people authorities believe safely fled the burning seniors' residence in the heart of the small town.

The toll of the missing and dead in L’Isle-Verte stands at 32. Ten of those have been confirmed dead, Quebec provincial police said on Saturday. Three of those eight have been identified by the coroner’s office.

Police were initially reluctant to give a firm number of missing people, hopeful that some of the residents were away at the time of the fire and simply couldn’t be reached.

“We can assume the worst,” Lieut. Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec said at a news conference Saturday morning. 

Police said, however, they will not confirm the deaths of any victims until their remains are recovered from the scene.

Survivors staying in neighbouring towns

On Saturday, emergency workers brought in extra equipment to help melt the 60-centimetre-thick ice that coats some of the rubble as the search for those still missing resumed.

Those who survived are now scattered between family members and other assisted living homes in neighbouring Trois-Pistoles and Rivière-du-Loup.

That’s where Pettigrew, 90, found herself after her home was destroyed in the blaze. Sitting in a room decorated with a vase of flowers and a few stuffed animals at a seniors' residence in Trois-Pistoles, she said she’s been well taken care of since the fire.  

She escaped unharmed, but knows several of the people who didn’t make it out. She wiped away tears as she described one woman with whom she shared her meals who she believes has died.

“There’s others who died as well. I saw a few who had all their arms burned,” she said.

“I didn’t cry then, but I cried after.”

Pettigrew  believes if she hadn’t been assisted by Arnaud Côté, a neighbour in the building's newer wing which sustained less damage than the older portion, she wouldn’t have made it out of the fire.

“He saved me,” she said. “If I didn’t have Mr. Arnaud Côté, I wouldn’t have known to take the emergency exit.”

Pettigrew went down two flights of stairs to safety, leaving her walker behind.

She was taken to a community centre and then to another location before she was moved to the room in Trois-Pistoles.

She hasn’t had the opportunity to talk to Côté, but said she’s immensely grateful.

“I want to hug him like he’s never been hugged before,” she said.

New wing saved by firewall

Other incredible stories of survival have emerged in L’Isle-Verte as more family members arrive at the scene to support their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who escaped the blaze.

Marie-Luce Dionne drove from Campbellton, N.B., to help her mother, who was also living in the newer wing of the Résidence du Havre. The flames were cut down by a firewall between the two sections. The newer portion is still standing. The older portion of the building is completely unrecognizable.

“I told my mom there were angels that night for her because she used to be in the apartment 206 [in the old section], apparently where the fire started,” Dionne said.

“She was moved down in the new [wing] on Dec. 27. There was a reason for that. She was saved maybe because she was moved there.”

Many residents and family members said they received exceptional care at the seniors home. Dionne said her mother has a very close relationship with one of the owners and she called once a week to speak with them about her mother’s care.

Dionne said her mother was assessed by medical staff, but didn’t require hospitalization.

“I’m pleased that she's OK,” she said.  “She's my mom, I love her and she asked to go, but I said, ‘Mom, God is not ready for that. When you go I hope you go peacefully.’

“I'm so glad she was not in the building. I would not like her to die that way.”

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