MONTREAL — Members of a grieving community north of Montreal gathered Sunday for a mass in solidarity with the families of three people who remained missing following a fire and explosion at a propane distribution company last week.
Several hundred people were in the pews of the local church as the ceremony began just after 10:30 in St-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que., about 50 kilometres north of Montreal.
Two employees and a subcontractor are still missing as provincial police continue to comb through the site of Thursday's blast with the help of police arson technicians and forensics specialists.
As of Sunday, police had still not confirmed any deaths or released the names of the victims.
Mayor Sébastien Marcil, who spoke at the service, said the small town is like a family that since Thursday has been "missing some of its members."
He described the wait for answers as "unbearable" for the loved ones of the missing people.
"You can’t imagine how hard it is to not have news about people you love for three days, knowing there’s an explosion and the people you know are there," said Marcil.
The local fire department received calls Thursday morning about an explosion and fire at Propane Lafortune, but the risk of further explosions forced firefighters to retreat and they were only able to bring the blaze under control in the evening.
Police have said winter weather and the state of the site, including the presence of various chemicals, has complicated the search for victims.
On Sunday, provincial police cars blocked off the road leading past the propane company, which was surrounded by farmer's fields. A number of technicians could be seen in the distance as they continued to sift through the snow and rubble of the levelled building.
Police spokesperson Hélène St-Pierre said officers were still working to secure and analyze the scene.
While police said last week that they don't believe the explosion was a criminal act, St-Pierre said Sunday that it is "too soon to make a pronouncement on the causes and circumstances surrounding the event."
She added there were certain "legal steps" being taken to allow investigators to continue their job, but did not elaborate.
Claude Ritchie, the parish priest involved in Sunday's mass, said ahead of the service that the town is close-knit and many people know each other.
In the wake of a tragedy, "You cannot do many things, but this thing we can do: to be there and tell people they are not alone," he said.
"That we consider their pain, their sorrow, their sadness. We share all this together."
The mass was attended by local and federal politicians, as well as representatives from neighbouring cities.
At least one person at the mass wore a jacket bearing the Lafortune company logo.
France Gibouleau, a resident of the area, said the entire town wanted to come together to support the families who are still "in the unknown," as well as the company owners.
The message she wanted to send was that "we love them, we'll think of them, that it will be a date we'll never forget," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2023.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press