(Adds updated death toll, details of police search)
By Randall Palmer
L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Quebec might speed up introduction of tougher laws on installing sprinklers at seniors' residences after a fire that is believed to have killed 32 people, the Canadian province's health minister said on Monday.
Police, braving bitter cold and snow squalls, are methodically melting the ice that has encased bodies in the ruins of the Residence du Havre, which caught fire on Thursday.
Police have found 14 bodies and another 18 people remain missing and are presumed dead, said spokesman Michel Brunet.
The three-story wooden home in L'Isle-Verte, a picturesque town about 230 km (143 miles) northeast of Quebec City, was only partially equipped with sprinklers, which are not obligatory at privately run Quebec residences in which some residents are mobile.
A special committee of police, fire-prevention and building experts in Quebec started looking last year into how to tighten regulations on sprinklers in privately run seniors' homes.
"It's not a simple problem. If it had been simple it would have been done (already)," Quebec Health Minister Rejean Hebert said at a news conference in the town after meeting survivors.
"We're still working very hard on this and I think the tragedy of L'Isle-Verte will probably accelerate the work of this committee," he said.
CAUSE STILL UNKNOWN
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois says she wants to wait for the committee's report as well as the results of the official police inquiry into Thursday's fire before deciding what to do.
Despite media reports that a cigarette may have ignited the blaze, police said they still do not know the cause.
Of the 52 residents in the building, 37 were 85 or older, and some could only move around with the aid of walkers or wheelchairs.
Teams of local police and firefighters - working with officials from the coroner's office - were painstakingly working their way through the ice-covered wreckage on Monday, using shovels and brooms.
"The difficulty is working with all the debris. The debris is black and the snow has melted. We have to work very, very slowly - some work is done by hand just to be sure we won't miss something important," Brunet told reporters.
"It was a big fire. You just have to imagine the condition some of them (the bodies) are in."
Pierre-Paul Malenfant, a social worker for the regional authority, urged the media to show restraint when approaching citizens of the town.
Hebert, who declared himself very moved and upset about the tragedy, said he met a man who in desperation had used bed sheets to let himself down from the third story of the building as the blaze spread. The sheets tore and he fell to the ground from the second story.
Police say it could take months to determine what sparked the fire.
"The government intends to implement more sprinklers in the facilities. It was a priority of the government before the tragedy. It's still a priority," Hebert told Reuters.
Mangled debris stood about 10 feet (3 meters) high in places. A large mechanical shovel could be seen lifting up chunks of the building and setting them to one side.
"This is a tough job. You are looking for people ... who you know personally, people from your family," Hebert said.
He said no complaints about the residence had been registered with the provincial government before the fire.
"They fulfilled all the criteria and people were very satisfied with the services in this residence. It was clearly a model of this kind of facility," he told Reuters.
The Quebec flag hung at half-mast at the town school.
"It's an absolute disaster. It reminds me of what happened in Lac-Megantic," Hebert told reporters, referring to the derailment and explosion of a crude oil tanker train in a small Quebec town that killed 47 people last summer.
In the wake of the Lac-Megantic disaster both the federal and provincial governments set up special funds to help meet the huge costs of rebuilding the town.
L'Isle-Verte's mayor, Ursule Theriault, said on Monday that Marois had told her the provincial government is prepared to offer financial help. Theriault did not give more details.
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.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend a Feb. 1 ceremonial mass in L'Isle-Verte, a spokesman said. (Writing by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Peter Galloway, Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.