LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Hundreds of mourners filled the streets of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, as the families of the 47 people killed in North America’s worst railway disaster in two decades attended a memorial service at a local church.
A trumpeter on the street played Ave Maria to the mourners as they gathered outside St. Agnes church to watch the service on a massive screen.
“It’s still difficult,” said Chantal Guay, a local resident who was among the crowd outside church. “We’re all family in Lac-Megantic, everyone knows each other. I knew them all — all the missing and all the dead.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and politicians from all levels of government, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, attended the memorial service.
“While a line divides our countries, it does not divide our people and it is important for Maine to support our northern neighbors during this time of need,” LePage said before his arrival in Canada. Our “two communities have forged relationships to share culture and economic growth. And in difficult times like this those bonds extend even farther,” the governor said.
Three weeks ago, a runaway train hauling 72 crude oil tanker cars careened into the center of town, derailed and then exploded into a series of fireballs, destroying dozens of buildings, including apartments and a popular downtown bar.
Although police say they consider Lac-Megantic’s core to be a crime scene, prosecutors have not yet laid any charges in connection with the July 6 train crash.
Inside the packed Roman Catholic church, makeshift shrines for the victims lined the altar, overflowing with pictures, handwritten notes and flowers. Family members bowed their heads as the names of all 47 victims were read out.
“Brothers and sisters, what happened? What did happen here in our town of Lac-Megantic?” said Steve Lemay, the community’s young parish priest. “An unspeakable disaster dragging us all into indescribable suffering. Our town, its heart devastated, has lost its children.”
Investigators have so far found 42 bodies amid the rubble, with another five people missing and presumed dead. Many of the dead were young people, out for the night at a local bar, just feet away from the epicenter of the blasts.
The community memorial was organized to bring comfort to the survivors, with Lemay and the town’s mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, handing out hosta plants to the families of the victims as sign of their resilience.
Rescue workers and police, along with the dozens of volunteers who helped run shelters for the displaced in the days after the crisis, were also honored for their work.
Helene Draper, who lost a cousin and numerous friends in the disaster, was overwhelmed by the support of people who came from across Quebec and around the world to attend the service.
“I’m very proud to see that all these people are still here for us,” she said, clutching a single white rose to her chest. “This is our chance to turn the page on this tragedy, to start to heal.”
The deadly accident has prompted Canadian transportation regulators to impose emergency new rules on rail safety, and has resulted in numerous lawsuits.
The train, owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, was parked on the main line outside of Lac-Megantic by its sole operator, who left it unattended for the night. It then began moving, gaining speed as it rolled downhill.
The blackened remains of Lac-Megantic’s core, just half a block from St. Agnes church, is still fenced off as the search for bodies and evidence continues. As the bells tolled, Marois spoke briefly with reporters gathered outside the church.
“I am here to speak for Quebec and the Quebecois people,” she said, her voice cracking. “To each and every person who lost a child, who lost a husband or wife, or someone they cared about — Quebec is whole-heartedly with you.”