Rail disaster victims honoured
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que.—The people of Lac-Megantic yesterday marked the first anniversary 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’s still so apparent on the local landscape.
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 yesterday, brought dignitaries to the town of 6,000, as well as first responders who came from across Quebec and the U.S.
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 yesterday 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,” Johnston pledged.
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 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 never again are 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,” stressed 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, Fluet said it would have been a sign of respect if he had participated.
Harper, who was touring flooded areas in Manitoba yesterday, 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 also were showered with warmth yesterday, receiving applause from townsfolk inside and outside the church.
The governor general announced 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.”