In Lac-Mégantic, it seems everyone knows someone who is dead or missing.
“A friend of mine, his daughter works in the city,” says Marc Perron. “And she’s dead — 25 or 26 years old.”
Eric Vallée sits on the front steps of his home. “A friend of mine had a party at his place that night,” he says. “He’s dead.”
The official death toll in the community of 6,000 people is up to 13. Dozens of people are still missing, and some residents don’t have much hope that those still missing survived.
“Forty missing?” Perron says. “They’re all dead for sure.”
Several of the confirmed dead have been sent to Montreal to be identified.
“There’s no one to identify,” Vallée says. “They all burned, tabernac. The people burned alive. It was a real crematorium.”
Colombe Robert sits on the porch of her home where she has lived for the past 23 years and points to the black Jeep Grand Cherokee in the gravel driveway. The car belongs to her neighbour, Stéphane Balduc, who lives in the apartment above her, but she hasn’t seen or heard from him since a runaway train carrying 72 cars filled with thousands of litres of fuel derailed on Saturday around 1 a.m., wreaking havoc on this small tourist town.
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Neighbours say Balduc was in the downtown core that night for a birthday. “He and his girlfriend were just leaving,” says Perron, who is staying next door. “They got in her car, and then ‘paff’ they’re gone.”
All over town, locals point to their neighbours’ homes and talk about lives lost. There are relatives still unaccounted for, friends missing and neighbours who may never come home.
The downtown core is still cordoned off by police. Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened it to a “war zone” when he arrived Sunday afternoon. The fires have been put out, but firefighters are still dousing the train cars with water to cool them down and prevent a fire from re-emerging.
Many are still displaced from their homes and are staying at a local high school. Robert, a retired 69-year old, opted instead to sleep in her car Saturday night. She found out she could return home on Sunday afternoon, but worries about whether she’ll be able to spend the night there, as she watches a police helicopter circle overhead. “I hope they don’t evacuate me again. Not for a third time,” she says with a laugh that sounds like a cry. “I’d be so discouraged.”
Lac-Mégantic was once a forestry town. In the past decade, it has focused on renovation and revitalization in its downtown core to boost tourism. Thirty buildings once stood downtown. Now there is only rubble.
Johanne Veilleux sits with her and two sisters and 87-year-old mother at their home, just a block away from where police have blocked access. Born and raised in Lac-Mégantic, the four witnessed first-hand all the work the town has done over the past decade to completely revamp the downtown, while maintaining the old-fashioned look of the buildings. “They just finished the renovations this spring,” Johanne Veilleux says. “They redid everything: the lights, the parkette.” The women say they haven’t even thought about what the town will be like once they are allowed to go downtown and assess the damage for themselves.
“Everything happened in the downtown area,” Johanna Veilleux says. “The lawyers, the dentists, the doctors, the optometrists, the post office. It’s all disappeared.”
“It’ll take years to fix and even then it’ll never be the same,” her sister Lysette adds. “They can’t bring those old buildings back.”
And for a town that depended on the tourist industry, they wonder if people will come back. “What are they going to do here now?” Johanne Veilleux asks.
The downtown was a hub for residents. Every Thursday night, there was live music in the park featuring orchestras or singers. This past week, it was a jazz. “Now it’s finished,” Robert says. “There’s nothing. There’s nothing. Il n’a plus de rien.”
Jessy Rouillard can’t go home with his dad just yet. The 13-year-old stands among friends at nightfall Sunday and shares pictures and videos his friends have been passing around on Facebook. One picture shows the luscious green grass of the park, juxtaposed with a more recent photo of the same trees burnt down. Only a few chimneys still stand. Another video shows fuel floating in the water along the Chaudière River. Jessy’s father, André, says he was by the river and the water is all green.
Other locals are still trying to understand the extent of the destruction. “How long do you figure until all the dead fish start to come up from the river?” Vallée says. “The fuel there was two feet deep in the water.”
Colombe Robert, meanwhile, pauses to muse about all the destruction — to families, friends, neighbours and the town.
“We had a really lovely city,” Robert says. “Now half is burned down.”