Vigils for the victims of the Lac-Mégantic train disaster are expected to take place Friday night and early Saturday morning across Quebec as well as in the neighbouring U.S. states of Maine and Vermont to mark one week since a runaway train derailed and exploded, claiming at least 24 lives and leaving another 26 feared dead.
Friends and loved ones of the missing and the dead had been planning to gather at the local high school in Lac-Mégantic at 1:15 a.m. ET, the time at which disaster struck the small Quebec town a week ago Saturday. But police and Lac-Mégantic's mayor have since advised people to hold smaller, personal vigils instead, fearing that too many people from neighbouring towns would show up for the event.
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said the community will eventually organize a communal event to mourn the victims but that she would prefer people remain in their homes and hold private memorials for now.
The town is still very much in disarray a week after the July 6 derailment. The investigation into what caused the accident is continuing, and the shells of the burned train have not been removed. Residents are also facing public health concerns and cleanup of the debris and oil dispersed by the runaway rail cars.
Vigils are planned in Montreal, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and as far away as Manitoba, as well as in some of the U.S. states that neighbour Quebec communities. Lac-Mégantic is a town of about 6,000 people located in Quebec's Eastern Townships region near the Maine border.
The mayor said she has been touched by the outpouring of support from neighbouring areas but said she doesn't want the disaster to hurt the tourism of the whole region.
"They were getting cancellation calls," she said. "I don't want the whole area to be touched by the catastrophe we're experiencing here in Mégantic. My message is: before you cancel, communicate with the tourism authority for the whole area. Those [other areas] weren't affected."
Access to red zone still restricted
Also on Friday, the Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to hold a press conference in town at 2 p.m. to update the public and the media on the federal agency's investigation into the July 6 derailment. TSB investigators have gained full access to the wreckage site and continue to search the so-called red zone for more bodies and fresh clues to the cause of the crash.
The red zone remains closed to the public, and Roy-Laroche told the media Friday that she is not sure when the residents whose homes are inside the zone will be able to return.
"If they weren't able to get back home, it's because we can't ensure their safety," she said. "We are assessing the situation every hour. Are we talking about weeks? Months? I will ask the [emergency] services to give more precise information to those citizens so they know exactly what to expect, but I can't tell you more at this point."
The explosion and fire set off by the derailment forced a third of Lac-Mégantic's residents out of their homes. All but 200 have now been allowed to return home.
A benefit concert for Lac-Mégantic was also announced Friday, to take place at Le National in Montreal on July 17. Hockey players from the NHL have agreed to donate items for a silent auction that will be part of the benefit event.
Difficult road to normal
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 a 2.5-metre fence blocking from view what was once the downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops — but which now resembles a blackened war zone.
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 disaster 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.
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.
Train operator says engineer to blame
Federal investigators have said they are focusing their probe on whether the train's operator — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway Ltd. — followed proper safety rules. Police said they have not yet ruled out the possibility that criminal charges could be laid — possibly, the charge of criminal negligence.
Ed Burkhardt, the owner of MMA's parent company, the Chicago-based Rail World Inc., visited the town on Wednesday and said the train's engineer might not have set enough handbrakes when he parked the train and left late on July 5 in Nantes, a neighbouring town 13 kilometres up a gentle slope from Lac-Mégantic.
The train was left unattended during the scheduled shift change that occurs at that location, and while it was sitting on the tracks, a passerby reportedly spotted a fire on the train and called the fire department. Burkhardt told the media that firefighters turned off the train's engine when they arrived and that it was likely the combination of that and the inadequate number of handbrakes that set the train rolling downhill.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, whose government is making a $60 million aid package available to the community of about 6,000 people, said the rail 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."
Rising oil output
The Lac-Mégantic train route was part of a vast expansion in rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America that has occurred as oil output has soared in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines have run out of space.
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But given the recent disaster, the town's residents are unlikely to be open to seeing the MMA route start up again any time soon.
Like many in the town, Megane Turcotte, 17, and her brother lost several loved ones in the tragedy. They were awakened by explosions early Saturday morning and found their mother, Diane Bizier, was still out.
"At first, we thought she was just somewhere where she couldn't get in touch with us," Turcotte said. "But after four, five, six hours, it started to sink in that she wasn't coming back."
Turcotte lost not only her mother but also a cousin who was a waitress at the Musi-Café and another cousin who was at the bar with her boyfriend.
Four people in total, she said flatly. In a town of 6,000, few if any have escaped the indescribable loss.
On Turcotte's smartphone is a photograph of her beaming mother, taken just last week, when Turcotte graduated from high school.
"I don't think I'm ready to take flight on my own," she said.
"I still need my mother."