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These items were part of a large memorial to the lost inside the St. Agnès Church in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
These items were part of a large memorial to the lost inside the St. Agnès Church in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Displaced workers in Lac-Mégantic replace exhausted volunteers Add to ...

Workers displaced by the train wreck that devastated the downtown core of Lac-Mégantic, Que., have been hired to replace exhausted and dispirited volunteers at the evacuation centre in a local high school.

“I saw the best and worst of human nature over the past week,” said Caroline Poirier, an English teacher at the Polyvalente Montignac who volunteered for a week in the kitchen of the makeshift evacuation centre.

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Ms. Poirier was roused from bed only minutes after train cars filled with oil began exploding in the village’s downtown on July 6, leaving 37 confirmed dead and another 13 missing.

After a week cleaning dishes and serving the 186 people who took refuge in the high school, Ms. Poirier told The Globe and Mail late on Sunday that she was ready to quit volunteering because she had seen what she considered abuse of the services the Red Cross was providing, including hundreds of people eating the free meals served by volunteers at a time when only a few dozen displaced residents remained in the shelter.

“We saw people showing up for breakfast who didn’t need help,” she said.

However, a spokesman for the Red Cross, Carl Boisvert, said that all of the 2,000 people evacuated at the height of the crisis are allowed to have meals at the shelter.

Julie Bolduc, the head of the high school’s support staff union, said late on Monday that volunteers had worked long, hard hours and were tired.

“Our volunteers worked 100 hours last week, they were exhausted and it was hard to find people to replace them,” Ms. Bolduc said.

She said Lac-Mégantic residents left jobless by the disaster have been hired to relieve the over-taxed volunteers in the kitchen. With six restaurants closed due to the explosions and mandatory evacuation zone downtown, the high school and Red Cross hired the workers who otherwise would be on employment insurance.

Thousands of residents, visitors and journalists passed through the Polyvalente daily in the days after the disaster.

Heather Gordon, a teacher at the Polyvalente, described the scene last week in the shelter as “surreal,” with hundreds sleeping in neat rows of cots in the school’s two gymnasiums. Hallways and locker areas were transformed into living rooms after the explosions. Families gathered in the dimly lit areas, while cats and dogs roamed freely.

On Sunday, the 21 evacuees remaining were moved to more permanent accommodations.

On Tuesday, 15 chefs and dishwashers from the village will begin serving meals to provincial workers who have turned the high school into a service centre to help residents and businesses with problems caused by the derailment.

On the main road into Lac-Mégantic on Monday, signs pointed to “evacuee services” at the high school, and 135 people were waiting in line to pick up aid cheques when it opened.

More than 500 locals are expected to come to the school daily until Wednesday to receive $1,000 in aid from the Quebec government. The cheques are part of a $60-million aid package for more than 1,500 people announced last week.

Police on Monday played down comments from the chief federal investigator that agencies were clashing in the crowded disaster zone, highlighting a “spirit of camaraderie” as temperatures reached 52 degrees at the crash site.

Referring to remarks from investigator Ed Belkaloul published in the French-language newspaper La Presse on Monday, police denied tensions exist between the agencies at the crash site.

“There are no tensions and I wish my colleagues were behind me to make that clear,” Inspector Michel Forget said of the plethora of provincial and federal agencies.

La Presse quoted the Transport Safety Board’s chief investigator in Lac-Mégantic as saying, “there are too many parallel investigations, we are stepping on each others’ toes.”

Later on Monday, Mr. Belkaloul acknowledged “friction” among the agencies last week, but said things are now running smoothly.

With the federal investigation expected to last months, the TSB head could not provide say on Monday when it will end. However, Mr. Belkaloul said that his team is gathering a substantial amount of information on the condition of the rail line and how secure the oil cars were.

In Monday’s searing heat, two firemen sifting through rubble collapsed from heat exhaustion, while another was injured by debris. Seven workers have been pulled from the line since Sunday, as they work to find the 13 bodies still believed to be in the rubble.

Follow us on Twitter: @danbitonti, @justincgio

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