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Lac-Megantic church opens for mourners

July 12, 2013, Lac-Megantic, Que. – A Quebec town mourning the death of dozens of residents came together Friday to voice its grief, seeking solace among neighbours as the scarred community takes its first steps toward recovery.

July 12, 2013
By The Canadian Press

July 12, 2013, Lac-Megantic, Que. – A Quebec town mourning the death of dozens of residents came together Friday to voice its grief, seeking solace among neighbours as the scarred community takes its first steps toward recovery.

The local church in Lac-Megantic opened Friday morning for anyone wanting to pray, lay flowers or otherwise reflect on the tragedy.

By mid-morning, about a dozen people gathered in the church just a few blocks from the site of last week's deadly derailment. Some paused at the top of the steps to peer down at the crumbled downtown just visible beyond a heavy construction fence.

Though the building was spared any noticeable damage, it was shuttered for days while police combed the area for signs of the missing and other evidence.

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Gaetane Labonte, who lives in the nearby community of Stratford, headed inside to pray for the victims and the families left to grapple with the loss.

"I'm sure people need this – to reflect together, try to comfort each other, try to find something to live for," she said.

Labonte knew two people who were at the Musi-Cafe when it was destroyed by balls of flame. Only one of them survived, she said.

The other, Natacha Gaudreau, once worked as a hairdresser in Stratford, Labonte said. The man who survived told her Gaudreau mistook the crash for an earthquake and instinctively moved closer to the wall.

About 50 people in the town about 250 kilometres east of Montreal are feared dead after a train carrying crude oil came off the tracks and exploded last Saturday.

A candlelight vigil scheduled for Friday night was cancelled after provincial police said they wouldn't have the resources to oversee a potentially large crowd.

It was unclear whether the cancellation would have an impact on similar events that were planned in Montreal and other Quebec municipalities.

Most Lac-Megantic residents are allowed to return home, and only about 10 per cent of the 2,000 who were evacuated will still be shut out of their houses as of the weekend.

As for families that have lost loved ones, a team of more than 30 counsellors have arrived in town to help residents in community centres, fire stations and even public parks.

One grief counsellor has said many families will struggle to move past the denial stage of loss because they won't have a body to bury.

And as the initial shock wears off, many in the community could find themselves dealing with post-traumatic stress or survivor's guilt, Richard Vaillancourt said.

"There are people who have gone back to work but they're still haunted (by the trauma)," he said.

Over time, they'll be able to process those emotions and reclaim their town and their lives, he added.

Vigils and other displays of compassion can provide much-needed support at a time when people often feel alone in their grief, he said.

Moments after leaving the church, Jean-Denis Martel's voice trembled as he lamented the grim tally of deaths he described as "needless."

Talking about it is painful, he admitted, but also cathartic.

"It helps, it makes you reflect," and think of those who lost family members and loved ones, he said.

The solemn expression of solidarity was felt even by those who stayed outside.

Jacques Mayrand, who lives in a house next to the church, says he has no words to convey his gratitude for the support shown for Lac-Megantic within the town and well beyond its borders.

"I've never been more proud to be a Quebecer," he said.

That residents now have the chance to mourn collectively is "a start," but families of those killed in the blast face a long struggle to come to terms with the trauma, he said.

Visions and sounds of the disaster are ingrained in Mayrand's mind. He said the noise of a nearby generator reminds him of an idling locomotive.

Mayrand said he and his friends witnessed the explosion from his home. When he was finally allowed to return Thursday night, the same group stared at the rubble from the same seats.

"Like it or not, we're reliving it all," he said.

"But we have to get through this and get back to our daily activities."