Lac-Mégantic residents mark a week of tragedy

Late-night vigil sees sombre friends and family honour their loved ones

(Ian Willms for Macleans)

It’s 1:13 a.m. on Saturday morning in Lac-Mégantic. The city is quiet. Seven locals stand quietly on the steps of on the steps of Sainte-Agnes church. One man sits on his knees, unflinching, and stares downtown. A week ago to the minute, everything was completely normal. People were in bars drinking and partying, while others were fast asleep in their beds. One minute later they weren’t.

The view of downtown is now obstructed by police cars, a fence with black mesh, and a yellow truck that all stand metres away from the grass in front of the church. A runaway train carrying thousands of litres of fuel, derailed, exploded and decimated the picturesque tourist town of 6,000 people.

“We lost a lot of people,” Johannie Grenier says. With a friend, she arrived just before 1:14am—exactly one week after tragedy befell their town, killing friends, neighbours and relatives. Twenty-eight people are confirmed dead and that number is expected to rise to 50.

Eighteen candles sit on the steps to the church, wax dripping down the steps. A pink rose lies above them. The mood is sombre and awkward; the journalists outnumber the locals.

In the distance, past the rubble of downtown and across the now polluted Chaudière River, a large cross is illuminated up a hill. Marc-Andre Lemonde and Marie-Claude Rancourt sit together in a park surrounded by flowers. The cross, a single candle, and the flame from their Viceroy cigarettes provide the only lighting. Like everyone else in town, they lost someone close to them. This is where they wanted to be tonight.

“We used to always relax here by the cross,” Lemonde says. “We can see the whole city from here. It’s so quiet.”

They stare downtown. Green lights point out the Polyvalente Montignac secondary school where people are still sleeping in cots. The bright white lights surround the “red zone” where most of the destruction occurred next to the church where people hundreds attended another vigil earlier that night.

The pews of the church go 34 rows deep and four banks wide. By 8pm, only the first eight rows are occupied, usually with just two or three people. About 50 people congregate at the front. As people leave quietly, more locals filter in. Those who sit are silent. The ones who stand at the front are talkative.

There are two large boards at the front for “the voice of hearts.” Hundreds of tiny hearts with handwritten notes expressing profound sadness fill the board. There are pictures of children who died in the explosion. One sheet of paper has the roster for the local Pee-Wee B hockey champions, with the words written over it: “Bye coach. We’ll miss you.”

Photos of the deceased and flowers line the steps up to the altar. One photo is of a young man, barely old enough to grow facial hair, wearing a baseball cap and hoodie. Another picture is of an elegant looking young woman with long blonde hair and a strapless blue ballroom gown. A piece of scrap paper is tucked in the frame with her name and age. She was 18.

Walking towards the exit, there are candles for those who sit outside. There are also water bottles with paper hearts attached to the lid with the words “solidarity, love, hope”.

Oustide the church, people talk on the steps behind the statue of Jesus, arms open wide, that overlooks the destroyed downtown.

Standing next to her daughter, Johanne Lapointe looks downtown.

“It’s discouraging,” she says. “We have to rebuild the whole city.”

But the vigil has become a reunion of sorts for many.

When asked about what it means to see everyone congregate at the church, Johanne starts—“It’s joyful to…”—then halts mid-sentence and starts over. “Well, it’s not joyful joyful…”

Her daughter Jennifer finishes her mom’s thought, “But it gives us hope.”

Jennifer had worked at the Musi-Café for three years. The popular bar at the centre of town was hit hard by the tragedy. Three of her fellow waitresses died that night.

Maude Verreault was one of the lucky ones to escape. She was working at the Musi-Café that night, but went outside to have a cigarette when the explosion went off. One week later, she and fellow waitress, Karine Blanchette, don’t want to recount stories of last week anymore. The two talk instead about designs for a mobile Musi-Café— a symbol of the city healing.

“It’s with action, with new ideas, with the renaissance that anger will leave,” Verreault says. “Yes we are allowed to feel pain….”

“But we have to use it to rebuild,” continues Blanchette.

But those plans will wait until tomorrow. “We’re carrying these candles as a symbol for all those families,” Blanchette says.

“I’m going to hold mine until it goes out,” Verreault adds. The two leave to reunite with their colleagues.

Over the four hours, people slowly come and go from the church steps until only a few candles remain.

Back out on the hill, it’s 2:11am, the single candle in front of Lemonde and Rancourt is almost entirely melted. Rancourt tries to take a picture of its last moments. When it goes out, they pack up the leftovers of the wax and walk to their car. They both have to work in the morning, but Lemonde says they are heading to another private party—“It’s the night to remember.”

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