(Reuters) - At least three people died and 30 were missing after a fire ripped through a residence for the elderly in the Eastern Canadian province of Quebec overnight, police said on Thursday.
Fanned by high winds, the fire engulfed the three-story Residence du Havre in the small community of L'Isle-Verte on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City.
"Right now 30 people are missing. Three are confirmed dead," Quebec police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu told a televised briefing.
"That does not necessarily mean 30 people have lost their lives. It's possible that some were relocated with other people. Some might be away with their families," she said.
Police said earlier that nine people had been taken to hospital. Public broadcaster RDI said a further 16 had been transported to other locations.
The fire started shortly after midnight and was extinguished by about 5 a.m. on Thursday, according to media reports.
Police and local officials promised to provide an update around midday. Many were bracing for a rising death toll.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said she was "deeply saddened" by the tragedy and sent several government ministers to the site to offer assistance.
One man described to RDI how his grandmother had called for help from a second-floor balcony and said efforts to reach her by ladder failed. "She died on the balcony," he said, his voice breaking.
RDI showed photos of the residence enveloped in flames. The temperature in the area early on Thursday morning was minus 22 Celsius (minus 7.6 Fahrenheit).
Eyewitness Pascal Fillion told RDI that at 1 a.m. a large part of the building was already on fire, due in part to the high winds.
Mathieu said the residence contained 52 units but said she did not know mow many people had been living there.
Last July, 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, about 400 km southwest of the site of Thursday's fire.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Galloway)