Police now say five people are dead and dozens are still missing following a fire early Thursday at a seniors' residence in eastern Quebec.

The fire began around 12:30 a.m. in L'Isle Verte, which is about 30 kilometres east of Riviere-du-Loup, or 230 km downstream of Quebec City and counts roughly 1,500 residents.

The Surete du Quebec confirmed 30 people are still missing from the residence Thursday night. Earlier in the day, police said they trying to determine if people were rescued by neighbours and are simply unaccounted for.

Crews will be setting up the equipment they need in order to continue the search Friday morning.

The cold weather has made been making their work difficult, said an SQ spokesman.

“It’s a colossal job that awaits us,” he said.

He added that police are doing what they can to preserve the remains of the victims. No details were given on where the bodies were found.

Witnesses said they saw flames coming from the upper floors, and at least one woman ran onto her balcony in a failed attempt to escape the flames.

Fire departments from several municipalities were called to the scene but they were unable to prevent the total destruction of the building.

The Surete du Quebec says 13 people were taken to hospital and 20 people managed to get out of the building.

The town's acting mayor, Ginette Caron, said only five residents who lived at the Residence du Havre were fully autonomous.

She told reporters Thursday morning that most of the residents could not get around on their own and are dependent on wheelchairs and walkers. Some of them also had Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Tragedy stuns small village

The Red Cross is providing emergency shelter in a nearby school gymnasium to 16 people who managed to escape the flames.

Reporting from the makeshift meeting place, CTV Montreal’s Maya Johnson said it seemed as though everyone in the town was affected in some way by the tragic fire.

Residents began leaving flowers and notes expressing sympathy at the scene of the fire.

“You see the worry and anxiety on people’s faces,” Johnson said.

Robert Berubé drove up from Montreal as soon as he heard about the fire because his mother lived in the residence.

99-years-old and blind, he does not know if she's alive or dead.

"My mother she's blind, she had a handicap. And they're supposed to move these persons first, and she's still there. I can't believe it. Something I don't have the answer for," said Berubé.

Marc-Henri Saindon’s mother moved into the residence, which he chose for her because of its reputation, about a month ago.

“We don’t know anything yet, but . . . it’s hard. She wasn’t autonomous,” he said.

Concerns over sprinklers

According to a government certification document, the Residence du Havre opened its doors in 1997.

It was only partially equipped with sprinklers, but did have a fire alarm system including smoke detectors in individual rooms.

The sprinklers were installed in a newer part of the building, which is still standing.

Seniors’ residences are not required to have sprinklers in Quebec.

At an afternoon press conference, Quebec Security Minister Agnes Maltais stressed that no action will be taken until the details of the fire’s cause are clearer. She added changes may be to the rules depending on the result of the inquiry.

“We do believe they are well protected, but we always have to tighten the rules each time we see there’s a failure somewhere,” she said.

Sympathies from politicians

Politicians were quick to offer their sympathies to the families of those who lived in the residence.

Premier Pauline Marois, in Switzerland at an economic conference, pledged provincial support to the municipality of L'Isle Verte.

"I want to offer my deepest condolences to all the family who have lost someone," she said.

Lac Megantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche reached out to the people of the small town, saying in a statement it revives emotions her town went through six months ago.

"We can understand all the pain and distress the community of Isle Verte is going through after the fire that decimated their community," she said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was travelling in Jordan on Thursday, told reporters that all levels of government were sending their condolences to the small community.

"Obviously in a community like that it's going to touch just about every single family," he said. "All members of our government want to express our condolences for this terrible loss of life."

Two phone lines have been set up for the families of those who lived in the Isle Verte residence. They can call 418-868-1010 or 1-800-659-4264 to speak directly with emergency officials.

--with files from CTVNews.ca Staff and The Canadian Press