07/09/2017 14:33 EDT | Updated 07/12/2017 13:06 EDT

94-year-old woman dies in suspicious blaze at seniors' residence near Montreal

TERREBONNE, Que. — A neighbour who rushed to the scene of a deadly fire in a Quebec seniors' residence on Sunday said he could hear trapped residents calling out before he turned the corner and saw the building in flames.

"There were police officers running, firefighters too, the house was in flames," Terrebonne resident Nicolas Martel said in a phone interview.

"There were two balconies and there was one person on each balcony who were trapped and who couldn't get out through their doorways because of the fire."

Martel said the rescue went quickly as police and firefighters ran in and out of the Oasis seniors' residence, carrying some residents and using ladders to reach those who were trapped on balconies.

A 94-year-old woman died after being taken to hospital in serious condition.

Police say the fire, which broke out around 1:30 a.m. at the facility northeast of Montreal, could be criminal in nature.

Quebec's minister responsible for seniors said the residence was in the process of installing a sprinkler system but could not say whether it had been activated during the fire.

"We were a few days from doing the first water tests at the level of the residence," Francine Charbonneau told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.

Forty-three people were rescued from the home, and twelve were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Two people remained in hospital on Sunday afternoon with injuries that were not considered life-threatening, according to a spokesman for the regional health centre.

The surviving victims will be transferred to other residences or long-term care facilities in the area.

The issue of sprinklers has previously come up in the province following another deadly seniors' home fire in 2014.

A coroners' report into the fire recommended that all certified seniors' homes in the province should be equipped with automatic sprinkler systems after 32 died in the blaze in L'Isle Verte. 

On Sunday in Terrebonne, Martel said most residents remained calm despite the flames shooting into the night sky behind them and the sparks flying from nearby electrical wires.

"They knew the firefighters were there, (so) they were agitated but they knew they weren't about to die," he said.

He said part of the building later collapsed, although the facade was relatively untouched.

Police said preliminary information provided by firefighters suggests the fire may have been deliberately set.

An investigation is underway to determine the exact causes of the blaze.

According to information on the residence that is listed on a Quebec government website, the residence had smoke detectors and alarms but no sprinkler system when the information was last updated in April, 2016.

At that time, all but five of the home's 32 residents were aged 75 and over.

About 70 firefighters fought the blaze, which appeared to be under control by around 6 a.m.

-- By Morgan Lowrie and Vicky Fragasso-Marquis in Montreal