As the doors of Ste-Agnès church opened to the late afternoon sun, its bells pealed loudly overhead and dozens of residents of the disaster-ravaged town filed out into the downtown.
They were silent, their faces ashen as they looked ahead, trying to avoid looking up at the scene of the worst Canadian rail disaster in decades, just a block from where they stood.
These were the families of the dead and missing, who had been bused in for a silent memorial service at the stone and brick church that towers over the community of 6,000. It was more than just a symbolic moment for the town’s grieving residents.
On Thursday afternoon, police pulled down barrier tape in an area adjacent to the crash scene, allowing 600 more people to return to their homes and bringing the number of evacuees to 200, down from 2,000 originally.
The area now accessible to residents included the downtown church and a stretch of businesses. But a ring wall of steel fencing hung with black tarps remains, partly blocking the horrific view of what police are treating as a crime scene.
That is the area where a derailed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train pulling more than 70 oil tankers exploded into flames that engulfed the downtown.
Many took to second-storey balconies, where they were able to stare into the wreckage with their own eyes for the first time. Televised images hadn’t prepared them for the ugly sight. Twisted slag and rubble bleached by the heat of the fire remained, along with blackened tree stumps in a nearby city park and dozens of destroyed rail cars still in place. The only markers left of popular nightspots were yellow tents erected by police where body fragments were brought to be identified.
“It’s difficult to look at this,” said Laval Fortier, 65, a resident who surveyed the scene from the church steps after the service. “It’s cruel, it’s upsetting. There are no words to describe this.”
But there were also more joyous signs of life. People returned to their residences from a temporary shelter or the homes of friends and family, cleaning products in tow to disinfect their homes and their refrigerators filled with rotting food. The locals chatted on the street in busy groups with familiar faces or sat out in the warm sun on their porches.
“I had goosebumps when I returned,” said Lise Tetrault, a 69-year-old grandmother who fled her home at around 1:30 a.m. last Saturday. “Taking a shower at home will feel good tonight.
A block away, Manon Grenier was cleaning her mother’s home on Rue Villeneuve, across from the fence, throwing out everything except six bottles of beer. “Entering the house I felt, ‘thank God,’ ” she said. “We’re lucky. But a lot of people are in misery.”
Signs frozen in time from before this picturesque town was turned into a war zone marked the downtown, including advertisements for garage sales and zoning-change notices. One home was decorated with U.S. flags and a sign wishing Americans a happy Independence Day.
But a more common reminder that things had changed forever was a two-page notice on many front doors, reminding residents to be wary of secondary contamination, odours and other hazards.
Etienne Poirier, another resident of Rue Villeneuve, said he was happy to return to a home largely untouched by the disaster and admitted his anger at the derailment wasn’t as strong as it had been earlier in the week. “Everyone is different,” he added.
“Life is beginning to return to normal,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s the loss of life that makes it more difficult.”
With reports from Justin Giovannetti, Daniel Bitonti, Kim Mackrael and Peter Power