As the toll of dead and missing, and presumed dead grows in Lac-Megantic, residents of the eastern Quebec town are coming out of their shock, grieving and angry.
The weekend derailment of a runaway trainload of oil tank cars that then exploded incinerated the heart of this railway town of 6,000. More than a dozen residents have been confirmed dead and dozens more are missing.
CTV News reported Tuesday that 1,200 residents of two neighbourhoods near the site of the accident were being allowed to return home. They were greeted with notices that they will need to clean and air out their homes to get rid of the stench of oil.
But it will take more than that for the close-knit community to recover. Beyond the physical destruction of the Lac-Megantic's historic town centre, family and neighbourly connections have been shredded by the loss of life.
“You see your neighbour walking by every day. You saw them yesterday, so if you don’t see them today, you know they’re dead,” city councillor Roger Garant told the Globe and Mail.
“For a town the size of Lac-Megantic, this is Sept. 11,” said Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s chief medical officer of health, told the Globe. “But it’s different, because everyone knows each other.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the devastated town on Sunday but an angry Raymond Lafontaine, who lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the blast, was frustrated that he didn't get to meet him to talk about railway safety.
"Get those dangerous products out from behind our homes," Lafontaine told The Canadian Press.
"Today I have the opportunity to speak and tell our managers ... 'You're not just here for politics, you're here to protect us and to stop polluting our environment.' "
The train, operated by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway company, was left parked overnight in neighbouring Nantes. Its air brakes released and it rolled down a hill into Lac-Megantic, where it went off the tracks and the tank cars filled with American crude derailed and exploded.
The company is blaming the accident on the Nantes fire department, which it says shut down the locomotive after putting out a small fire on board. Without power, the air brakes stopped working, the company claims. The fire department said such a shutdown is standard operating procedure and that it's responded to several such locomotive fires in the last few years.
Unanswered is the question of why an idling locomotive would be left unattended overnight while the train's single engineer went into town to sleep.
Almost everyone in town knows someone who is dead or missing, Maclean's noted.
“A friend of mine, his daughter works in the city,” Marc Perron told Maclean's. “And she’s dead — 25 or 26 years old.”
Nearby, Colombe Robert said she hasn't seen her neighbour, Stephane Balduc, since the train derailed around 1 a.m. Saturday. He apparently went into town to attend a birthday celebration.
“He and his girlfriend were just leaving,” says Perron, who is staying next door, told Maclean's. “They got in her car, and then ‘paff’ they’re gone.”
Many of the dead were at the Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was just metres from the crash site. Manager Sophie L'Heureux told the Globe she she went home around 9:30 p.m. Friday to take a nap, intending to return. But she overslept and was not there when the Musi-Cafe disappeared in flames. Three staff members, along with many friends and acquaintances are missing or dead, she said.
“I feel so much pain and loss,” a tearful L’Heureux told the Globe. “We’ve lost people we loved.”
Besides the loss of life, Lac-Megantic has lost its commercial centre, which was also a hub for its crucial tourism business.
“Everything happened in the downtown area,” Johanna Veilleux told Maclean's. “The lawyers, the dentists, the doctors, the optometrists, the post office. It’s all disappeared.”
It's also lost some vital connections to its past. The explosion and fire destroyed the town library, which held its archives, the Toronto Star reported. It was destroyed just as the finishing touches were put on a plan to move its 60,000 books and historic documents to a bigger building elsewhere that would give easier access for residents.
Library chairwoman Diane Roy fought back tears as she described the archives, which included baptismal records dating back to the 17th century, correspondence from local politicians and records from town social clubs. Roy also lost something personal.
“For the longest time, I kept at my home letters my uncle had written to my grandmother when he was a prisoner of war during World War II,” Roy told the Star.
“But then, just recently, I brought them to the library so my uncle’s grandchildren would be able to view them whenever they wished. I was actually scared they might get destroyed in a fire if I kept them in my house.”
The books will be covered by insurance, Roy said, but nothing can replace the lost archives.
“We lost a huge part of our history, what helped people here better understand their own community,” she said. “It’s nothing short of tragic.”