Few mementoes survived the inferno that consumed downtown Lac-Mégantic last summer after rail cars filled with oil exploded in the Quebec town. But the charred fragments that were left behind help tell the story of those touched by the disaster. Most of the 47 people who died had spent their final evening at the Musi-Café. Photos by Michel Huneault.
Yannick Gagné, owner of the Musi-Café
Yannick Gagné’s hands are covered in soot and yellow crude oil moments after he starts pulling scorched bills and tubes of coins out of the cashbox that was in his basement office on the morning of July 6.
One of the few artifacts to survive the explosions, the cashbox was under a thick concrete slab. The exterior of the box is burnt and was bent by the extreme heat; inside, the plastic tray melted into slag. Mr. Gagné has yet to count the money. “It’s too dirty,” he says, guessing about $4,000 is inside.
About 25 rolls of $2 coins line the bottom of the box; the rolls are stuck together and some have fused with the box. Handfuls of $100 and $50 bills survived, along with many bills in smaller denominations. Despite the heat, the bills look ready to be spent – once they are cleaned. According to the Bank of Canada, polymer bills are tested to survive heat of up to 100 C.
IN THE LIBRARY RUBBLE
First responders found the Musi-Café’s cashbox several days after the disaster struck in the rubble of the local library, several doors down from the bar.
“We have some doubts about how it got there,” Mr. Gagné says. After Quebec’s provincial police tried to return the box to the library, they realized it was from the Musi-Café.
According to Mr. Gagné, he was told that someone probably stashed the box in the rubble and intended to retrieve it after they figured out how to deposit $4,000 worth of oil-soaked bills.
A series of deposit envelopes with thousands of dollars also disappeared.
Along with the cash box, he also got a Kostritzer beer sign that was slightly damaged by the fire.
“We kept a horseshoe in the basement as an amulet to keep away bad luck and it’s still there,” he says.
WATCH, EARRINGS AND RINGS
Andrée-Anne Sévigny, waitress at the Musi-Café
Officials from the Quebec coroner’s office had little to help them identify Andrée-Anne Sévigny’s remains until they found a graduation ring in the rubble.
“They were able to clean up the ring and see her name, Andrée-Anne. Based on the model of ring, they found her graduation year,” says her mother, Louise Breton. “I recognized it right away.”
Ms. Breton now wears the ring on the middle finger of her left hand.
After the disaster, what little first responders could find was brought to the family in small plastic evidence bags marked with the number assigned to her at the scene of the disaster: 19. “They were just numbers,” says an emotional Ms. Breton. Many of her memories of the days after the disaster are a blur.
Her daughter’s boyfriend, Marc-Antoine Masse, was able to identify the scorched earrings found near Ms. Sévigny’s body. She had bought the jewellery that morning at the local shopping centre.
He was also able to identify a silver watch as Ms. Sévigny’s. A gift to his girlfriend, the watch was damaged in the fire and the glass was missing.
The hands on the watch have melted, permanently stuck around three o’clock.
The 26-year-old was studying nursing and waiting tables at the Musi-Café. She stayed after the end of her shift to help her overworked colleagues through to the early hours of July 6, 2013. Her body was found in a pile with five others in the Musi-Café.
Yannick Gagné, owner of the Musi-Café
Two stacks of dirty tiles, covered with a thick white powder, sit under Mr. Gagné’s deck, waiting for their next use. The black granite and orange ceramic tiles have no value, except that they were the tiles on which as many as 30 people died last summer.
Mr. Gagné has been contacted by a Montreal-based artist who will use the tiles to make a mosaic – a memorial for the dead. Unlike the larger municipal memorial, this mosaic will occupy a special place in the new Musi-Café.
“There will be a place to gather for [honouring] the 47 victims in town. I want somewhere for the victims at my place that night. Those people come first to me, they were my friends, my employees, my clients. I want a special corner to never forget them,” he says.
The region around Lac-Mégantic is renowned for its granite mines. The tiles brought back to Mr. Gagné had been installed only months before the derailment during renovations. He intends to install more granite in the newly rebuilt Musi-Café
BACK OF THE BAR
When an oil train belonging to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway derailed just before last call on July 6, there were about three dozen patrons in the bar. Within moments of the derailment, flames and explosions swallowed the bar. According to the Quebec provincial police, most of the bodies were found in the back of the bar. That’s where friends of Mr. Gagné found the tiles and brought them back to him.
“It’s stuff with no value for other people, but this is some of the only stuff that survived,” he says.
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