Just months shy of her 100th birthday, and as sharp as ever, Marie-Jeanne Gagnon had barely settled in to her new surroundings at a Quebec seniors' home when the fire broke out.
Gagnon, 99, a new resident at the Residence du Havre in the village of L'Isle-Verte, vanished Thursday as a powerful blaze destroyed part of the building.
She is among the roughly 30 people who were still missing Friday following an overnight blaze that, by the official count, had killed eight residents. Authorities expect that number to rise over the coming days.
As authorities used steam Friday to melt thick sheets of ice off the rubble, friends and relatives of the missing waited to hear if the remains of their loved ones had been recovered.
Gagnon's son, Marc-Henri Saindon, was quickly convinced he would never see his mother again.
"There's no hope," Saindon said Friday as he stood across the street from the ice-covered remains of her home, where firefighters had doused flames in temperatures that hovered around -20 C.
Saindon said his family has felt the pain of tragedy before. In 1989, he lost his then-19-year-old son Yves in a fire that followed an explosion at an auto shop.
"Life, eh? We don't get to choose our moments," Saindon said while clutching a framed photo of his smiling mother.
The Saindons weren't alone Friday, as other families in Quebec's Lower St. Lawrence region waited for grim news from authorities.
"The difficulty we have is that we want to be able to find victims but we want to respect the integrity of these potential victims," Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe told a news conference.
"So the steam allows us to melt the ice ... without damaging any element that might allow us to go forward in the investigation."
Most of the residents probably never had a chance when the blaze erupted — many were over 85, had little or no mobility and were confined to wheelchairs or walkers.
The owners of the residence made a public statement Friday for the first time since the fire. They offered their condolences to victims' families.
Roch Bernier and Irene Plante thanked firefighters, volunteers and the residence's employees and said they are co-operating fully with authorities.
As the recovery work continued Friday, local grocery-store owner Christian Morin grappled with the possibility he had lost an aunt and uncle, who lived in the seniors' residence.
He also said some of his regular customers were among the missing.
"They'd come by all the time to buy 6-49 tickets, Kleenex, toilet paper, peppermints," he said of his clients.
The visits were more frequent in the summer when it was easier to get around than in the winter. "They were like my big family. I knew them all."
A man he identified as Romeo showed up like clockwork.
"He'd be there at 7:30 and he would check his Lotto Max and we'd talk about hockey and baseball," Morin said. "He's 94 years old."
Nobody had heard from Romeo since the fire and Morin, whose store is a stone's throw from the residence, wasn't optimistic.
Morin's memories are now tinged by the horror of what he saw shortly after he heard the first scream. He first thought he'd left the TV on before going to bed but then he heard more screams and looked out the bedroom window.
"I was witness to something I would never want to see ever again in my lifetime," he said in a trembling voice.
Morin and his wife raced out into the frigid cold to help people flee the homes near the seniors' residence.
"That's when I realized the scope of the tragedy, when I opened my eyes and I saw the residence. I saw desolation, we heard screams, cries for help. It was terrible."
Saindon, meanwhile, struggled Friday to cope with his conviction that he had seen his mother for the last time. She would have turned 100 on April 30, he added.
"She was in perfect condition," said Saindon."Lucid. A memory that was still really good."