LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – Staring at the spot where her sister’s bed once stood, all she could make out amid the ash was a nest of mattress springs gnarled by the intense heat.
Louise Boulet said the building that housed little sister Marie-France’s home had burned to the foundation shortly after a runaway train carrying volatile crude oil roared into her Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.
The tanker wagons bounced off the tracks in July and erupted in a series of powerful explosions, razing part of Lac-Megantic’s core and killing 47 people in the middle of the night.
Marie-France Boulet, 62, was among the victims, though officials could not positively identify her remains. Her sister believes she was likely deep asleep in her bedroom at the time.
“I could visualize exactly where her bed was,” Louise Boulet said as she recalled her escorted visit to the cinders of her sister’s home a few weeks after the derailment. That day, the downtown area was still considered a huge crime scene and was fenced off from the public.
“I even said to the police officer, ‘If you’re looking for bones, her bed was right there.’ ”
With 2013 coming to a close, the Boulet family, like so many in the region, are working to rebuild their lives and their town following a disaster that grabbed the world’s attention.
Since the July 6 crash, millions of dollars in government funding has been pledged for the massive environmental cleanup and reconstruction; blueprints have been sketched for a new downtown; and discussions are underway to see whether the tracks can eventually be re-routed outside of railway-dependent Lac-Megantic.
The disaster underscored the need to improve railway safety in an era that has seen oil-by-rail shipments soar in recent years. It has already inspired some regulatory changes and more are anticipated in North America.
All of these changes are taking place amid an ongoing grieving process for the town of 6,000.
The Boulet clan, who held a funeral for Marie-France in September, is one of three families advised this month that the remains of their loved one could not be identified. To date, eight of the 47 victims have yet to be positively identified through scientific testing, though their deaths have been declared.
“We hoped so much that they would find her body,” Louise Boulet said in an interview at her home, a few kilometres east of downtown Lac-Megantic.
She said Marie-France’s 10 siblings must move forward: “The family goes on, life goes on.”
Marie-France’s brother had also hoped for an identification, but Bernard Boulet said he had already accepted her death.
“I learned that the body wasn’t there, but it didn’t change anything for her,” said Bernard Boulet, who received the news while trimming his Christmas tree.
“If we are survivors, the show must go on.”
Bernard Boulet, a former railroad traffic controller, hopes the future will include the new railway bypass to ensure freight trains eventually stay on the outskirts of town, which is about a three-hour drive east of Montreal.
He also wants the community to find something positive in such a terrible event. He suggests locals take advantage of the spotlight on Lac-Megantic — in a respectful manner — to pursue new economic projects, such as boosting tourism and attracting businesses.
“Her death must be for a reason,” Bernard Boulet said of his sister.
“In five years from now, I hope we’ll be proud.”
The mayor is also encouraging locals to generate new ideas.
Colette Roy-Laroche said she has emerged from her own mourning process and is now focused on Lac-Megantic’s reconstruction, which includes helping business owners relocate their shops and assisting those still struggling from the disaster.
“I want people to dream about their new town,” said Roy-Laroche, who practically became a household name in Quebec for her calm demeanour following the derailment.
“I can’t change anything (that happened). It’s more about how can we live better every day, move forward every day?”
That healing process has been difficult for many in Lac-Megantic.
The autumn calendar was filled with funeral after funeral and locals have had to make do without their old gathering places, such as the shops along Lac-Megantic’s charming downtown strip. The area has been transformed into a large construction site enclosed by fences.
The annual hum of Christmas shoppers has been replaced by the rumble of backhoes and dump trucks.
“There’s grieving for the people, grieving for the buildings in our downtown and grieving for the environment,” said resident Lucie Bilodeau, whose boyfriend’s niece was killed in the crash.
“It’s not a big town. I stopped going to funerals after the eighth funeral. I said that I was no longer capable.”
In the weeks after the disaster, grief counsellors provided around-the-clock services to help comfort those affected in the community.
These days, a team of 11 counsellors stays busy providing individual and group therapy, said Marcel Mathieu, an official responsible for the region’s psychological services.
“The challenge is facing a catastrophe or a tragedy of a scope with no precedent for a small town like Lac-Megantic,” Mathieu said.
The sorrow was so prevalent in Lac-Megantic that a group session was even held for local massage therapists, estheticians and hairdressers, he added.
“These are groups of people that have pretty intimate contact with their clientele and…they’re often called upon to give advice,” Mathieu said.
“These people don’t always know how to answer their clients.”
His organization is now preparing for the return of the train. Counsellors, he said, will be strategically stationed around the community on the day railroad service resumes in town.
The tracks in Lac-Megantic have been repaired and trains could chug through town as early as this week. This town was built on the railroad, which remains a vital component for local industry and the regional economy.
The insolvent company at the centre of the disaster — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. — is expected to be sold in the coming weeks. Following the July derailment, MMA announced it would stop transporting crude oil on the rail line.
Roy-Laroche, however, is concerned that the next owner could eventually resume cash-generating oil shipments through town, cargo that would raise concerns among many locals. She said the municipality is examining its options to prevent it from happening.
The MMA and petroleum-logistics companies connected to the oil that exploded in Lac-Megantic are facing lawsuits on both sides of the border for the disaster.
MMA chairman Ed Burkhardt, who has also been named in a still-to-be-authorized lawsuit, said he thinks about the derailment every day.
“Yeah, it’s a real negative, a real problem to me, but it is what it is,” said Burkhardt, who also heads MMA’s major stockholder, the Illinois-based Rail World Inc.
“It’s a huge tragedy. I feel strongly about what happened there and the disaster that befell people in that town.”
Burkhardt held a turbulent, impromptu news conference in Lac-Megantic a few days after the crash. He was heckled by residents and was later questioned by provincial police for several hours.
A couple of weeks after that meeting, police raided MMA’s office in Farnham, Que.
Burkhardt has also cast blame on the train’s driver, the man who parked it uphill of Lac-Megantic the night of the accident. The MMA chairman has alleged that Tom Harding did not apply enough handbrakes on the train before it broke loose.
Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash, but his lawyer has said he met with police and transportation investigators. The attorney has also described Harding as “devastated.”
A provincial police spokesman said a criminal investigation into the Lac-Megantic disaster is ongoing and that it could conclude at any time.
Last week, a warrant was granted to allow Transport Canada to search Irving Oil’s office in Saint John, N.B., as part of the agency’s investigation into the derailment. The train was loaded with oil destined for Irving’s refinery in Saint John.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, meanwhile, is conducting its own report into the causes of the crash.
In September, the TSB revealed that the cargo in the ill-fated tanker train was as volatile as gasoline, but was documented as a less-dangerous product, like diesel or bunker crude.
Louise Boulet clearly remembers being struck by the “incredible” stench of oil when she visited the crater that used to be the building that housed Marie-France’s home and her lingerie boutique.
With nothing intact for her to collect after the blaze, Louise Boulet scooped up a few charred rocks from the rubble. They now sit in a small urn on a table in her living room.
Searchers who sifted through the cinders later found small pieces of gold at the site, enough for Louise Boulet to have mounted into 10 pieces of jewelry. Each of Marie-France’s siblings received one at her funeral, she said.
The family is now preparing for a holiday season without her.
“I can’t wait for 2014… This year hasn’t been our year — not at all,” Louise Boulet said.
“We try to be positive, we try to look forward.”
A photo from inside the disaster zone in Lac-Mégantic, Que. Released by the Quebec provincial police on July 9, 2013. (Sûreté Du Québec)