Like hundreds of other Lac-Mégantic residents who returned to their homes on Tuesday, Maryse Lemieux found her apartment almost eerily unchanged from the way she left it before an evacuation order forced residents of her neighbourhood from their homes.
“Life returns to normal for some people,” said Ms. Lemieux, a 49-year-old tax specialist, showing little emotion. “Paycheques have to go through.”
But as they tried to return some semblance of normalcy to their lives, Ms. Lemieux and others in this tight-knit community of 6,000 were painfully aware that just a few hundred metres away were the wreckage of buildings, remains of people they knew and loved, derailed oil tanker cars and leaked fuel that created a giant hole in the heart of their town on Saturday.
For many, it was matched by a hole in their hearts. After one of the worst Canadian rail disasters in decades, many here hope the downtown will be rebuilt. But as dull reactions of shock and grief gave way to public displays of emotion, many said they did not want the track that snakes through town to be restored along with it.
“The sound is what got me. It was as though the wagons were rolling through my house. I’ll never forget the rumbling,” said an agitated Richard Bolduc, who returned to his home just northeast of the blast site and had to be calmed repeatedly by his daughter during an interview on Tuesday . “We’ve now learned that was our friends and neighbours being incinerated alive. How could this happen?” he said, fighting back tears. “They left 72 wagons full of dangerous liquid above our town. Everyone saw that, but no one said anything. That’s enough. I’m standing up. Someone needs to say this wasn’t right.”
“I think the worst is coming,” said Karine Blanchette, a waitress at Le Musi-Café, the popular downtown bar obliterated in the fire, where police expect to find the charred remains of 40 to 60 people, including many she knew well. Ms. Blanchette, who decided 25 minutes before the derailment not to return to the bar hours after her shift ended – she could not find parking close by and headed home – said most residents had not seen the devastation up close yet, only images from cameras. “We are not [yet] in downtown,” Ms. Blanchette said in an interview. “We don’t yet [feel] the energy, the atmosphere” of the destroyed area. “We had an almost perfect place here. [Now] it’s ash.”
And many who want to rebuild the town, she added, will draw the line at restoring the rail line. “I hope and I believe this community will be strong…[but] if the railroad [is] still in downtown, the people will take off, because no one wants to see this railroad again in downtown.”
Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to federal transport minister Denis Lebel, said in an interview: “It’s a spectacular tragedy. I can’t imagine what it would be like for residents to witness this kind of sudden invasion of fire right into the heart of their community.”
The disaster has severed the longstanding relationship between the town and the railway that put it on the map in the 1800s. It’s even featured in Lac-Mégantic’s motto, “From the railway to the Milky Way,” a reference to a nearby observatory. Safety concerns about the line, owned and operated by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, had been mounting in the Eastern Townships community due to the state and path of the track that was carrying more and more loads of crude oil to the East Coast from expanding oil fields in the west .
Frustration and hostility were evident elsewhere on Tuesday around town. In the afternoon heat, a woman walked past a police barricade that still separates hundreds of residents from their homes. Officers rushed to stop her. Tempers flared as two men began shouting at them.
“There’s no danger down there. You guys are standing there all day and we just want to go home,” one yelled. “The mayor told us at 8 a.m. we would be able to go home, then at noon we were told we would be able to go home. We’re angry because you keep getting our hopes up.” Extra police officers had to be called in to diffuse the situation.
Meanwhile, a handwritten sign by the tracks near the crash site represented the anger of many people. “You, the train from hell, don’t come back here, you’re not welcome,” it read.