By Randall Palmer
L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (Reuters) - Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on Sunday said a fatal fire in a seniors' residence was "unacceptable" but stopped short of saying her government would make sprinklers mandatory in homes for the elderly.
Authorities fear 32 people died early on Thursday when fire ripped through the Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte, a picturesque town of 1,500 people some 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City in eastern Canada.
"These are events we very much don't want to happen, and so we have to do everything possible to make sure they don't happen again," Marois told reporters after arriving in town.
She later joined grieving residents at a private memorial service at the town's simple stone church.
Roch Bernier, co-owner of the residence, greeted the congregation somberly and was given a standing ovation, an emotional show of support in this tight-knit community.
"I come to you with a heart full of emotion and at the same time enormous suffering," he told the mourners, saying he considered the residents to be part of his family.
Bernier also called on people not to look for blame.
"Let us find out what we can to do to help each other," he said before returning to his seat, barely able to choke back tears.
Several people who attended the ceremony, including some whose relatives were still missing, spoke highly of Bernier to reporters afterwards. One woman said he had a "vocation" for caring for the elderly.
The town's mayor later fought back tears as she described Bernier's surprise appearance and praised his "courage."
Relatives of the victims placed photographs of their loved ones behind the marble altar rail in the front of the church. One firefighter took a break from looking for victims to attend the service. His wife's grandmother, Marie-Jeanne Gagnon, would have turned 100 in five months and is now presumed dead.
A larger public mass is due to be held in the town on February 1. A spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not immediately respond when asked whether Harper would attend.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of the terrible fire in L'Isle-Verte," Harper said in a statement on Twitter.
Despite media reports that a cigarette might have ignited the blaze, police say they still do not know the cause.
Only part of the residence was equipped with sprinklers. Quebec law does not require sprinkler systems in residences where the occupants have some mobility.
Premier Marois said she would wait for the results of an inquiry into the blaze and the report of a committee examining the question of sprinklers before deciding what to do next.
"If they recommend to change the rules and change the law and implement sprinklers, we will do it ... but we will take the time to do that very well and not do it (as) an emergency," she said. Police say it could take months to find the cause.
Earlier in the day, winds of 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) and intense cold forced Quebec police to briefly suspend their search for bodies in the ice-clad ruins of the three-story wooden residence.
Police did not recover any more bodies on Sunday after announcing on Saturday they had found 10 bodies and that 22 people remained missing. Three victims have been identified.
Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said the search process is going more smoothly now that rescuers have brought in machines to melt ice that in some cases was 2 feet thick - a result of the large amounts of water used to put out the fire.
One powerful machine is normally used to de-ice ships by blowing hot air, and another machine uses steam. The specialist teams have also spread tarpaulins over the entire site to ensure it stays warm while they search each area.
Lapointe could not give a timeline for when all the victims would be recovered.
"It's a terrible tragedy," said Marco Gagnon as he helped customers at a grocery story carry their bags out into the wind. "But we have to keep going, one step at a time."
"It's going to leave a big hole in the village. That's 2 percent of the population," he told Reuters.
Most of the 50 or so residents were over 85, and many needed to use wheelchairs or walkers, town officials said.
TOO EARLY TO APPORTION BLAME, SAYS QUEBEC PREMIER.
Grocery store owner Christian Morin paused after mopping the floor to reflect on two of his relatives who perished - an 82-year-old aunt and an uncle in his early 90s.
"What frustrates me is these people went to finish their days in peace, but to finish in this way ...," he said, his voice trailing off.
His aunt was able to walk and lived on the ground floor but still died in the blaze, which firefighters say was fanned by unusually high winds.
Marois cautioned against trying to apportion blame.
"We have to be very careful at this point not to draw conclusions, not to pass judgments. Wait for the inquiry to finish. Rumors don't help anyone, or blaming this or that person. It's not the time for that," she said.
Town officials and residents interviewed by reporters have said the residence was clean and appeared to be well run. The residence says on its website that it won provincial awards for good service in 2004 and 2006.
Police have interviewed nearly 100 witnesses so far in their investigation into the blaze, Lapointe said.
The disaster looks set to be the second-worst to hit a Canadian seniors' home after a 1969 fire in Quebec that killed 54 people.
(Writing by David Ljunggren and Louise Egan in Ottawa; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Jeffrey Hodgson, Sophie Hares, Jonathan Oatis and Eric Walsh)