The tears were wiped away as the names of Lac-Mégantic’s dead were read aloud one-by-one on Saturday morning as thousands gathered outside the shattered town’s main church.
The pews of Ste-Agnès Catholic church were packed for a commemorative mass, the first public ceremony since the July 6 derailment of an oil train which claimed 47 lives and consumed the small village’s downtown with fire and explosions.
While police refused to provide official estimates, officers reported that 4,000 people packed Laval Street, the main thoroughfare in Lac-Mégantic.
With most of the small town present, local grandmother Pierrette Turgeon-Blanchette, a retired teacher who said she taught many of the dead, took the stage inside and read from the list of the 31 victims identified so far.
“You know grandmothers, we like to tell stories, today I’d like to tell God a story,” started Turgeon-Blanchette as she began listing the names, her voice piped outside on two giant screens.
Locals cheered earlier when Prime Minister Stephen Harper led Premier Pauline Marois and Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche into the church. Outside, an honour guard of firemen was cheered louder as it took its place at the doors.
Over 700 seats in the church were reserved for the friends and families of the victims. Many locals gathered outside the church two hours before the ceremony was scheduled to get a seat.
None of the 42 bodies recovered from the downtown have been returned to the town for burial; they are being kept in a Montreal crime lab where they were identified. Even without bodies or memorials at the ceremony, Ms. Roy-Laroche said she hopes the gathering will allow the town of 6,000 to begin sharing a collective sense of grief.
“On the night of the explosion we saw everyone on the streets and sidewalks, many of us haven’t seen each other since then,” Ms. Roy-Laroche said. “That’s why this is important.”
Stepping out onto the front steps of the church, the dignitaries were faced by the destruction only a 100 metres away. The prime minister took a moment to point out areas of devastation to his wife. Mr. Harper had been given a personal tour of the disaster area in the days after the derailment.
“It’s still very difficult to fully absorb this when you see all these families who have been so affected,” said Mr. Harper, speaking in the shadow of the tall barricade that stops people from peering into the burned out Red Zone.
The federal government has pledged $60 million to help with the clean up and reconstruction, the same amount put forward nearly two weeks earlier by officials in Quebec City.
While the archbishop of Sherbrooke, Que. presided over the mass, local perish priest Steve Lemay was faced with asking the assembled town a question that has been on the minds of many in the weeks since the derailment.
“What happened? What happened in Lac-Mégantic? Our children are crying,” said Father Lemay.
Cecile Dubé drove for nearly three hours from Quebec City to watch the mass on the screens outside. After the one-hour ceremony ended, she entered the church to face another sea of tired and stoic faces. An emotional Ms. Dubé turning pink as she looked at the photos and mementos left around the altar by the families of the victims.
“It’s so shocking, I had to be here to understand,” said Ms. Dubé.
Nearly 200 people in the community remain displaced, with many staying in local motels or with family. Nearly a month after the derailment, the town has slowly began to move back to normal, with federal investigators beginning to leave and the presence of the Quebec provincial police becoming noticeably thinner.
“We’re worried about what will come next, how people will cope, the stress, the depression,” said Charles Richard, as he walked away from the church.
Both the Red Cross and Quebec’s emergency services have pledged to stay for months to help people begin to recover, however the mayor has begun to warn that reconstruction might not begin for years.