LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – A church was packed, with the overflow crowd spilling out into the surrounding streets, for a memorial service Saturday three weeks after a train derailment devastated Lac-Megantic, Que.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was among the numerous politicians attending the service, which featured emotional tributes to the 47 people killed in the disaster.
The elected officials received cheers as they arrived — although the loudest applause was reserved for a group of firefighters.
In his homily, parish priest Steve Lemay began with an attempt to describe the anguish in the town.
”Brothers and sisters, what happened here? What happened here in Lac-Megantic? Unbelievable events that caused us inexpressible suffering,” he told mourners at Ste-Agnes Church.
“Our town, its heart devastated, is mourning its children. Children who were unique because of a colour and vitality they brought to their families.”
He continued with a more hopeful message to the living.
He said he found that inspiration in the courage of crews at the disaster site; the volunteers in the parish; the schools transformed into shelters; and the legions of dedicated public workers.
“This procession of mourning is running into another one. A procession of people, inspired by a love and strength that one God can provide. I see it…. I’ve seen this consoling, enlivening procession since the beginning of the terrible tragedy that struck us,” Lemay said.
“The procession of death meets that of life.
“Nobody — nobody here or anywhere, can bring back the dead and give them back to those who love them as Jesus did…. However … we can all help life triumph. On our own path, we each experience these little victories over evil — little victories over suffering.”
Several heads of government walked in together as one group of dignitaries — including the prime minister, Premier Pauline Marois and Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Maine Gov. Paul LePage were among them.
”Obviously, this has been a very emotional day followed by a very emotional period, with lots of emotions yet to come,” Harper said after the mass.
”It is still very difficult to fully absorb this when you see all of these families who have been so terribly affected.
”I am here with Laureen just so we can share our thoughts and prayers with all of the victims, with their families and with their friends.
”And also, as prime minister, to express the solidarity of all Canadians with the people here, something I know the people of Lac-Megantic greatly appreciate.”
Marois’ voice was strained and she appeared to be holding back tears later, as she said Quebecers were fully behind the people of Lac-Megantic.
One of the people standing in the crowd, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, was conducting a TV interview but he stopped to join others in applauding the arrival of the dignitaries including his political rivals.
While other politicians entered to sit in the pews, Trudeau watched the mass from outside in the crowd monitoring the giant screens set up for those who couldn’t get in.
About 1,000 people packed Ste-Agnes Church for the mass, which was presided over by Luc Cyr, the archbishop of Sherbrooke.
Some 700 places were reserved for loved ones of the deceased, with the remaining pew spots set aside for locals, volunteers and dignitaries.
The mass began with a grandmother from the town reading out the names of all the victims from a large card.
“You know grandmothers — they like to tell their grandchildren stories,” said Pierrette Turgeon Blanchet, before she began reading.
“But today I’d like to tell God a story.”
Sophie L’Heureux, the manager of Musi-Cafe bar, lost many friends and co-workers after fireballs consumed the watering hole moments after the crash.
She watched the ceremony on a big screen on the street outside he church.
“It’s an important step in the mourning process,” she said of the service’s impact on the town of 6,000.
“The whole population of Lac-Megantic is still really in a state of shock, even after three weeks. It will stay engraved on our hearts and on our memories for a long time.”
Many people outside the church wiped tears from their eyes as the names of the victims were read out at the start of the ceremony.
Forty-seven people were killed on July 6 when a train carrying crude oil careened off the tracks and exploded into an all-consuming fireball.
The tragedy has triggered several lawsuits, a police criminal investigation and a probe by federal transportation-safety officials.
Quebec and the federal government have each promised $60 million for emergency assistance and longer-term reconstruction help for the town.
Ottawa has also revamped some rules on train transport, following the advice of the federal Transportation Safety Board.
A photo from inside the disaster zone in Lac-Mégantic, Que. Released by the Quebec provincial police on July 9, 2013. (Sûreté Du Québec)