Fire raged through a seniors residence in eastern Quebec on Thursday morning, killing three people and leaving about another 30 missing.
The blaze consumed the complex in L'Isle-Verte, about 240 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the building, said he witnessed the unfolding drama shortly after midnight.
"I got up to go to the toilet and I saw smoke,'' Michaud told local newspaper Info Dimanche.
"The fire had started on the second floor. I woke up my girlfriend and called 911. I saw the firefighters and they got to work.
"A woman on the second floor was shouting and she went out on to the balcony. Her son went to get a ladder but he couldn't get to her. She burned to death.''
Local chief firefighter Yvon Charron called it "a night from hell.''
The building was home to more than 50 people and also housed a social agency, a pharmacy and a hair salon.
Sixteen people took refuge in a local school.
Several fire departments in the region were called in to help extinguish the blaze, which completely destroyed the building.
Quebec provincial police Sgt. Ann Mathieu said authorities were trying to determine the exact number of victims and learn the cause of the blaze.
Canada has experienced a number of similar tragic fires in recent years.
One in Hawkesbury, Ont., in May 2012 claimed the lives of two people, while one person died in a seniors' apartment building in London, Ont., last October.
A blaze in June 2009 at a retirement residence in Orillia, Ont., killed four people and left six elderly residents critically injured.
A coroner's inquest following the fire made 39 recommendations related to automatic sprinklers in retirement homes and assisted living centres.
That led to a new law in Ontario, which took effect on Jan. 1, requiring all retirement homes in the province to have automatic water sprinkler systems.
Elsewhere, a fire at a retirement home in Langley, B.C., in April 2012 left a man dead and sent several other residents to hospital. And a woman in her 70s died in a fire at an Edmonton seniors residence in August 2012.
Emergency information line: 1-800-659-4264