Lac-Megantic, dignitaries honour dead one year after rail disaster

Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The people of Lac-Megantic marked the first anniversary Sunday of the fatal rail disaster that wiped out part of their town with church services, a salute to first responders and moving tributes to the dead.

But though a year has passed, the psychological scars in the Quebec community remain as deep as the physical damage that is still so apparent on the local landscape.

Crowds packed Ste-Agnes Church twice on Sunday to remember the 47 people who died when a runaway train derailed in the centre of town and exploded.

The two events were unique in their own ways.

The first began with mass at midnight which finished right before 1:15 a.m. — the exact moment on July 6, 2013, when the fuel-laden train derailed and exploded in a series of cataclysmic fireballs.

After the ceremony, more than 1,000 people solemnly marched through the darkness on a path that followed the train tracks which brought the fatal load into their town.

The second mass, later Sunday, brought dignitaries to the town of 6,000 as well as first responders who came from across Quebec and the United States. A monument in the form of a large granite book etched with the names of the 47 victims was unveiled on the church lawn.

The events were part of a weekend of activities including social events and concerts to remember the tragedy.

After the late-morning service, Mayor Colette Roy Laroche urged her citizens to keep their chins held high.

"We will rebuild our town more beautiful than ever," she said.

Dignitaries including Gov.-Gen. David Johnston and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard lay bouquets of flowers in front of the monument after attending the church service late Sunday morning.

Both Couillard and federal International Development minister Christian Paradis, who represents the local riding, pledged to continue to help the town.

"We will never forget the victims whose names are etched in stone but we will also see that life will again triumph in Lac-Megantic," Couillard said.

But morale in Lac-Megantic remains fragile amid major obstacles such as the slow rebuilding process and pervasive psychological wounds that have yet to heal.

Part of the town core, where dozens of buildings were destroyed and millions of litres of crude oil soaked the soil, remains a gaping hole locked behind a security fence.

Johnston referred to the obvious signs of the tragedy even though a year had passed.

"The site is still very much one of horror," he told reporters outside the church before the mass, as he looked toward the nearby devastation.

"But I'm so struck by the solidarity and the spirit of hope that exists here in Lac-Megantic . . . .The future will be better and we'll work together to make it so."

Inside Ste-Agnes Church, parish priest Steve Lemay told the service that it had been a difficult year and he urged the politicians present to continue to provide support for the community.

"I pray, and I will continue to pray, that the fraternal support you offer us today will continue in the form of concrete decisions and actions," Lemay said to a round of applause.

"We still need help to rebuild our town and protect our environment."

The politicians received another request from locals after the mass, as they walked from the church along the railroad track from the church.

They passed about a dozen people who stood at a level crossing holding signs calling for help to build a bypass train route around the community, a new trajectory that would ensure dangerous substances are never again transported through Lac-Megantic.

Gilles Fluet, who said he knew many people who died in the disaster, held a poster with a picture of a child in Lac-Megantic asking: "Daddy, could the train explode here again?"

Fluet said they're also waging their fight for people beyond the town's boundaries.

"We're asking for better safety for the citizens of North America," said Fluet, who directed the blame at the federal government because it oversees rail regulation.

"It's also to signal to the world that they can be caught in a tragedy like this no matter where they live."

Asked whether he thought Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have attended the weekend events, he said it would have been a sign of respect if he had participated.

Harper, who was touring flooded areas in Manitoba on Sunday, released a statement noting the "resilience, determination and extraordinary strength of character" of Lac-Megantic residents.

"No passage of time can erase from our consciousness the lives lost, the injured and the families torn apart by this tragedy," Harper said in the news release.

"Having witnessed this first-hand during my visits, I owe these people my greatest admiration."

First responders were also showered with warmth Sunday, receiving applause from townsfolk inside and outside the church.

The governor general announced that he would present the Commendation for Outstanding Service to first responders, citizens of Lac-Megantic and the surrounding communities, "as a way of recognizing their extraordinary efforts and exceptional kindness and caring."

Terry Bell, a fire chief from the nearby state of Maine, said he was honoured to be invited to the service.

Bell arrived in Lac-Megantic hours after the derailment to a scene that he described as a war zone.

"It's the largest fire any of us have ever seen," said Bell, who comes from Farmington, about 150 kilometres from Lac-Megantic.

"You had fire coming out of manholes, the lake was on fire and you had the devastation in the buildings. It looked like World War Two."

That horror was echoed in a moving speech at the early morning ceremony by Roy Laroche, who received two thunderous rounds of applause and two standing ovations from about 1,200 people who packed Ste-Agnes Church.

"For several minutes we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn't true," Roy Laroche said of the catastrophe in a speech also watched by about 200 people on a big screen outside the building.

"But what happened to us was a nightmare. When we removed our hands (from our eyes), the horror was still there and the worst was to come."

She urged townsfolk to turn the page on the tragedy and look to the future, but to never forget.

Roy Laroche, who became a household name in Quebec for her leadership and poise in the disaster's aftermath, also asked the community to stick together to overcome any future obstacles.

"A year ago, we found ourselves in one of the worst tragedies in the histories of Quebec and Canada," she said.

"We were also covered by the biggest wave of love and solidarity that modern Quebec has ever known."

Many participants in the march wore glowing plastic stars on their chests. Several wiped away tears as they held hands with the person next to them.

Most stared sadly at the downtown area where dozens of buildings were gutted. To this day the zone remains off-limits behind metal fences as decontamination work continues.

A half-dozen people left the march to sit side-by-side on the railway track, looking at their broken town.

Nearby a woman stood by herself, gazing in the same direction while weeping quietly in the darkness.

"I think it was important to do this to complete our mourning process," said walker Bernard Boulet, whose sister Marie-France was declared dead in the disaster, though her remains were never found.

She lived in the downtown area that was incinerated by the explosions. Boulet said several of her family members took part in the events.

"It does us some good," Boulet said of the mass and the march.

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