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Andre LaFlamme, a paramedic in Lac-Megantic, remembers July 6 2013 as "hell."  He stands on a ceremonial boardwalk outside the destroyed area known as the "red zone."  Photo:  Monique Cornett
Andre LaFlamme, a paramedic in Lac-Megantic, remembers July 6 2013 as "hell." He stands on a ceremonial boardwalk outside the destroyed area known as the "red zone." Photo: Monique Cornett

One year later: sorrow, hope and hard work in Lac-Megantic

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Early Sunday morning in a small town in eastern Quebec, thousands of local residents held a midnight vigil for the victims of one of North America's deadliest train accidents.

One year ago, an American-owned tanker train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed and erupted in Lac-Megantic. The flames incinerated the community's downtown. Forty-seven people died.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

We don't want anyone to forget this moment. And with a ceremony like this everyone will remember I hope forever
Hell must look like this

On July sixth of last year, early in the morning, a train with 72 tanker cars rolled free from a hillside where it had been parked above the small town of Lac Megantic. 

The train rolled faster and faster until it hit a bend in the track in the heart of the village. 

Just after 1 a.m., a local man shooting video with his smart phone captured the boiling clouds of flame as the tankers erupted one by one. 

"Ah, mon Dieu!" he cries. "Ah, mon Dieu! Oh, my God!"

That terrible morning Andre LaFlamme arrived on the scene and found what he describes as a “wall of fire.”

"It was crazy. It was crazy. I remember saying, ‘Hell must look like this.’"

LaFlamme is a paramedic, a lieutenant with Lac-Megantic’s fire department. That night, his crews had to fall back, retreating as more and more of the oil tanker cars erupted.

"We tried our best. As firefighters we always want to save everybody. That night, we could not."

A town with a fragile soul

LaFlamme grew up here and says he knew roughly half the people who died that night. In this small town, everyone lost a friend, a brother, a boss.

Complicating that emotional blow is the fact that a year later much of the downtown still sits abandoned. 

It’s right there. A huge rubble field dividing the community in half. A historic part of the main street sits abandoned, too heavily contaminated with heavy metal and oil residue to re-occupy. 

July Byrns also grew up here and lost her cousin in the fire. "I was supposed to be there that night," she says.

By a twist of luck, Byrns says, she went home rather than going to the popular night club where many of her friends died. 

"It’s not easy. We lost important people there. We lost our town, we lost the...spirit. We lost the spirit of the town. It’s fragile."

Unfinished business

Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche speaks at St. Agnes church early Sunday morning, her image projected on a large-screen TV outside.  Photo:  Brian Mann
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche speaks at St. Agnes church early Sunday morning, her image projected on a large-screen TV outside. Photo: Brian Mann
"Finding peace here will take time," acknowledges the town’s Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche. 

In part that's because there are still a lot of unanswered questions here. Criminal cases filed in May are just now pending against three of the American-owned railroad’s Canadian employees, who are charged with negligence.

The cost of rebuilding and restarting people’s lives has already been huge, tens of millions of dollars, but many businesses haven’t reopened. The town’s beautiful river and lakeshore are still polluted. A decision to build a brand new business district from scratch has been controversial.

In the new downtown of Lac-Megantic, everything looks like it was unpacked out of a box overnight. Brand new, shiny. One of the tests for this small town will be to see if they can bring this new heart of their village to life.

As part of this weekend’s memorial, artists from Lac-Megantic and around Quebec are building a ceremonial boardwalk that skirts the red zone and leads to that new main street. 

"So the idea of creating just a very simple boardwalk emerged as a way to clearly guide people through the new path and also put them a few inches away from the tragedy," says Mona Andreas, a designer who came from Montreal to help.

She says the challenge is "finding this balance between looking back and looking forward."

At St. Agnes church, a ceremony of comfort

A memorial to victims inside St. Agnes Church in Lac-Megantic.  Photo:  Brian Mann
A memorial to victims inside St. Agnes Church in Lac-Megantic. Photo: Brian Mann
That new boardwalk begins just below St. Agnes, the church that stands just above the rubble field.

Just after midnight Sunday morning, the sound of a lone violin echoes from the church. Speaking from the dais, Mayor Roy-Laroche tells the congregation that Lac-Megantic "must turn a page in our history, not to forget, but to allow a new vision for the future."

"It’s not real easy," says Guy Boulet, who owns a furniture store just across from St. Agnes. He has been a member of the congregation all his life. "As you know, I lost one sister during this tragedy. So especially during the week we think a lot to her."

Marie-France Boulet vanished in the firestorm. Her remains were never found. Like a lot of people here, Guy Boulet is deeply wounded and angry. He says moving on will take time and patience. 

Boulet says top executives in the company and government regulators should also be held responsible for allowing what Canadian officials now acknowledge were unsafe practices.

Boulet also wants tougher rail tanker rules in the US and Canada, so that this kind of disaster doesn’t happen again. But he says this ceremony, this commemoration, is a comfort, a necessary step toward normalcy.

"Oh yes, it will help. Especially because we don’t want anyone to forget this moment. And with a ceremony like this everyone will remember I hope forever."

Townspeople walk along the new boardwalk, past the disaster site.  Photo:  Monique Cornett
Townspeople walk along the new boardwalk, past the disaster site. Photo: Monique Cornett
Despite uncertainty, a town walks together

Through this long, painful year, St. Agnes church has become a pivotal place for Lac-Megantic. The walls inside are decorated with photographs of the victims, with artwork created in their honor.

At the exact time that explosions began to rip through nearby streets a year ago, Father Steve LeMay, the local priest, calls for a minute of silence.

Then Father LeMay leads the townspeople – thousands of them, carrying lamps and candles — out along a ceremonial boardwalk along the edge of the red-zone. 

People pass one by one and in small groups and families through a wooden arch set with forty-seven wind chimes – one for each of Lac-Megantic’s dead.

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