Residents of Lac-Mégantic, Que., gathered together in grief and remembrance on Thursday to mark the 10-year anniversary of the day when a runaway train barrelled into the heart of their town and exploded, killing 47 people.
The church bells of Sainte-Agnès church rang out following a commemorative mass that was attended by Quebec’s premier and Canada’s prime minister, both of whom laid flowers in tribute to the victims.
The day’s events began hours earlier, at 1:14 a.m., when a silent march was held starting at the exact moment the unattended train careened into the heart of town on July 6, 2013.
People donned star-shaped LED lights in memory of the victims as the mayor led marchers from the church and down the former main street that was flattened in the disaster, pausing at a memorial on the spot where the train struck.
For Michelle Dubé, who lost a niece in the tragedy, the memories from 10 years ago remain vivid.
“You don’t forget something like that,” she said. “It will take generations to forget.”
Dubé said her niece, Marie-France, “perished in the flames” along with the home and boutique she’d owned on the town’s main street, the buildings destroyed so completely that her remains were never found. While that adds an extra layer of pain, Dubé said nearly everyone in the town has a story of loss.
“It’s uncles, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends,” she said. “It’s a little town, everyone knows everyone.”
At the mass later, a choir sang as a slide show displayed photos, one by one, of all the victims, including two people who died by suicide after the disaster.
While dignitaries attended the church service, a group of citizens outside laid flowers near the railroad track that still runs through downtown and held a rally to demand greater action and accountability from those in power.
Gilbert Carette, a member of a citizen’s group that advocates for greater rail safety, said the sadness of the anniversary is laced with frustration. He said trains still run through town, and they’re longer and carrying more hazardous material than ever.
Carette’s group is calling on the government to call a full public inquiry into what happened, and for both Ottawa and the provinces to create greater oversight over rail companies, which he said are largely allowed to self-regulate. “(The rail companies) are doing their own reports and they send it to our governments, and they just put their stamp on it,” he said.
Claude Roy, another member of the group, pointed out that a long-awaited rail bypass to divert trains carrying dangerous goods away from the centre of the 6,000-person town has not yet been built.
“Ten years later, we’re still waiting,” said Roy, who knew many of the victims. “I hope in two years the railway will be outside downtown and we’ll be able to breathe.”
Speaking to reporters outside the church, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau honoured the strength and resilience of Lac-Mégantic’s people, and recognized that it has taken longer than hoped to build the bypass.
“I made myself and the community a commitment that we would end the trains coming through this community …. We’re hoping to start construction this fall,” he said.
Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra also attended the ceremony, and he promised that the railway bypass would be built.
“The community here, I understand, will never fully heal until the bypass is built, until they stop seeing the trains run through the heart of Lac-Mégantic, and that’s why we’re committed to it,” he told reporters.
The derailment and fire destroyed much of the downtown core, forced about 2,000 people to evacuate their homes and spilled six million litres of crude oil into the environment. The disaster happened when the brakes failed on a train parked in nearby Nantes and it barrelled down the slope into the town.
Town officials have said they want to keep the focus of this week’s events on remembering the victims, comforting the survivors and noting the progress that has been made. The early-morning march included a walk up the new main street, featuring newly built shops, as a way to highlight the town’s reconstruction.
Nicole Isabelle, a resident attending the march, said she felt the anniversary would help residents move forward, “even if it’s hard to live through.”
Isabelle, who knew several victims, said one of her most vivid memories is of people gathering in the church sanctuary following the derailment, clutching pictures of their loved ones as the church filled with flowers.
In the decade that has passed, she said, both the town and the people who live in it have made “big steps” toward rebuilding.
“We’ve succeeded in moving forward,” she said. “But like with any mourning, it’s never really finished.”
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2023.