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Harper, other dignitaries attend ceremony for L'Isle-Verte fire victims

An emergency worker walks past a sign which reads "Look out for our residents" as the search for victims of a seniors’ residence fire continues on Jan. 24, 2014 in L'Isle-Verte, Que.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Gilles Moyen entered the church Saturday in the Quebec village of L’Isle-Verte with two goals — to honour 32 victims of a deadly fire at a seniors’ home and to find the man who saved his mother from that same inferno.

Moyen was among about 900 people inside the impressive Roman Catholic church to remember those who died, or are presumed dead, after a powerful blaze destroyed part of the seniors’ residence on Jan. 23.

Loved ones and neighbours joined many dignitaries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Pauline Marois, for the hour-long ceremony.

For Moyen, there was one person in particular he hoped to see.

A man named Arnaud Cote, who lived at the Residence du Havre, has been credited with rushing to save the lives of three fellow residents, as the overnight fire quickly consumed the building around them.

Cote, 84, has said he awoke to the roar of sirens and immediately understood the gravity of the situation from the haunting screams of his trapped neighbours.

He woke up three women and ushered them out the doors to safety. Among them was Moyen’s 87-year-old mother, Jeannette D’Auteuil, who suffers from hearing loss.

“Without him, my mom would be gone — I’m almost sure of it,” Moyen, who hails from the region but now lives in a Montreal suburb, said before the ceremony.

“So, I must thank him.”

Moyen, who was almost certain his mother had died in the fire when he first heard about it, said she already had the chance to see Cote after the disaster.

“She said, ‘When I saw him (Cote) I jumped into his arms,’ ” Moyen said. “She thanked him for waking her up.”

So many families with loved ones at the residence in L’Isle-Verte, about 250 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, were not nearly as fortunate.

Local priest Gilles Frigon paid tribute to the deceased inside the 159-year-old church, saying in his homily that nobody deserved to die that way.

“I want to thank all those who have prayed for us all across the country,” Frigon said.

“This has allowed us to open our hearts, to get back up…and to become better men and women.”

Photos of the victims graced a billboard at the front of the church, and, near the altar, organizers had placed a rocking chair, a shawl, a hat and a bouquet of 32 roses.

Pierre-Andre-Fournier, archbishop of Rimouski, praised the work of first responders, with the presence of an ambulance uniform, a firefighter’s helmet and a police officer’s cap at the front of the church symbolizing their efforts.

After the ceremony, Harper gave a statement to reporters outside the church, only a couple of hundred metres from the charred remains of the devastated seniors’ home.

“We’re all here to express all our condolences and our sympathy to the victims, to their families and to the entire community here,” Harper said.

“This is a very beautiful place, but this is a very big tragedy. It’s something that everybody can identify with. We all have, or have had, parents, grandparents who become elderly, who are terribly vulnerable. And when we see something like this, it breaks the heart of everybody.”

Quebec’s premier also honoured the victims in front of the church following the service.

“I hope that will allow people to find peace again in a community that has suffered so much,” said Marois, who requested that flags on government buildings fly at half-mast on Saturday.

“I feel like telling the community, ‘Look after the people who are still here, who are around you.’ ”

Officials, who have not yet announced the cause of the blaze, said Saturday that 27 people have been declared dead and five others were still unaccounted for and presumed dead.

Crews continued their search Saturday for the remains of those still missing.

Robert Berube, whose 99-year-old mother Adrienne Dube was among the missing, travelled 500 kilometres from Montreal.

“We’re still waiting,” an emotional Berube said before the service. “Every day we hope that she will be found.”

Berube said he can’t go through the mourning process until her body is recovered and added he will stay in L’Isle-Verte as long as it takes.

Others in the church included NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche, whose community was razed by fireballs last July when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the downtown core.

The Lac-Megantic disaster, which killed 47 people, launched an international debate over safety concerns and regulations linked to North America’s booming oil-by-rail industry.

The L’Isle-Verte fire, meanwhile, has stirred debate whether Canada’s seniors’ homes are safe enough to prevent similar tragedies.

Under Quebec’s existing rules, sprinklers are only mandatory in seniors’ residences where the occupants are not mobile.

Only part of the 17-year-old Residence du Havre, where many occupants needed wheelchairs or walkers to get around, contained sprinklers.

An expansion to the three-storey, 52-unit facility was built in 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.

The Quebec government has said in the wake of the it could make sprinklers compulsory in all private residences, regardless of who lives there.

Marois has said a working committee has spent the last year studying whether sprinklers should be mandatory in buildings like the Residence du Havre. She said the government will change the law if the committee recommends that sprinklers are needed in such buildings.

Mulcair said Saturday was a day to honour the victims, not for discussing any potential regulatory changes.

He said he spent the morning meeting with volunteer firefighters and Red Cross workers, including some he had met last summer in Lac-Megantic.

“It’s extraordinary what’s been put in place to help the community because it’s not just the families and the loved ones of the victims that have been affected by this, but a whole community and a whole region,” said Mulcair.

“It’s a huge tragedy…and we’ve got to make sure that the aid continues after.”

Trudeau said the fire is further proof of the need to protect the less vulnerable in society, particularly seniors.

“So, to be here with all levels of government, with all different political parties, reinforces the message that we understand that responsibility and it’s also a sense of letting the people here in L’Isle-Verte know that people from across the country are thinking of them,” the Liberal leader said.

Following the ceremony, journalists learned that Moyen had succeeded in tracking down the man he had been thinking about: Cote.

Outside the church, Cote was asked if he had met Moyen.

“He came to thank me,” a modest Cote said of his friend’s son.

“What do you want me to say? I saved her, but I had a hard time waking her up. Her door was locked, I couldn’t get in to her apartment. I had to bang on the wall with my fist. But she woke up.”

The retired farmer said he hoped the ceremony would mark a turning point for the community of 1,500 people.

“We must move forward, we must not look back,” Cote said.