Shell-shocked residents of Lac-Mégantic took a small step toward normalcy on Friday after homes and businesses reopened just yards away from the lakeside town's devastated centre.
Police erected an 2.5-metre fence blocking from view what was once the downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops — but which now resembles a blackened warzone after a train pulling 72 cars of crude oil jumped the track and exploded into flames there on July 6.
Bells from the town's main church, whose spire towers over the treetops in this normally quiet town in Quebec's eastern hills, could be heard ringing out for the first time since the incident as residents prepared to bring in mementos of the dead for a memorial.
"It is good to be home, even if we're near a disaster area," said Andre Gabouri, 47, as he stood on his doorstep peering over the police barricade across the street and into the warped pile of train cars.
In a testament to the intensity of the blast, which killed an estimated 50 people in Canada's worst train incident in years, the vinyl siding of nearby houses was curled outward and the leaves in the trees blackened.
Some 24 bodies have so far been recovered in the blast zone, police said on Thursday, with another 26 unacounted for and believed to be dead.
Officials on Thursday said Elianne Parenteau, 93, is among the dead. She is the first of the victims to be identified.
A death toll of 50 would make the accident the worst rail crash in North America since 1989, and Canada's deadliest accident since 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.
Investigators on Friday continued a round-the-clock search of the enclosed "red zone" for more bodies and fresh clues to the cause of the crash.
Federal investigators have said they are focusing their probe on whether the train's operator — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic — followed proper safety rules. Police said they have not yet ruled out a crime — possibly criminal negligence.
MMA's owner, Ed Burkhardt, on Wednesday visited the town and said the train's conductor may not have set enough handbrakes when he parked late on July 5 in Nantes, a neighbouring town 13 kilometres up a gentle slope from Lac-Mégantic.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, whose government is making a $60 million aid package available to the community of about 6,000 people, said the company's behaviour had been "absolutely deplorable."
Guy Farrell, deputy director of the Quebec steelworkers' union Syndicat des Métallos, said he blamed the incident largely on inadequate federal regulations to keep operators like MMA in check.
"After what we saw in Lac-Mégantic… I mean, I don't want to panic the Canadian people, but if you live near a railroad track in this country can you really sleep peacefully at night?" he said. "For us, the important thing is that the government must tighten regulations now."
The train was part of a vast expansion in rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America as oil output soars in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines run out of space.
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Its crash had forced a third of Lac-Mégantic's residents to leave their homes as the fires burned. All but 200 have now been allowed to return home.
Daniel Lessard, 57, returned to his home on the perimeter of the restricted area on Thursday afternoon with his wife, Lorraine Poirier.
"Just having a drink on my balcony, to calm my nerves and enjoy being in my own home again," he said.
But he said things would never be the same.
"We'll keep hearing that train for years. It'll be old memories that will come grab us when we sleep."
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