In a place where everyone knows one another, the missing cannot be ignored. In Lac-Mégantic, they have vanished like ghosts and are expected never to return, victims of a tragedy that has left a scar on a proud little town.
Few could disappear from this community of 6,000 without a mother, brother, cousin or neighbour noticing. In the cold calculus of disaster, they are unaccounted for. In the hearts of the community, they are already starting to be mourned.
“You see your neighbour walking by every day. You saw them yesterday, so if you don’t see them today, you know they’re dead,” said Roger Garant, a city councillor who came to the perimeter of the crash site.
And so a community of people struggles to come to terms with a gruesome tally: 13 dead and a missing-persons list that grew to 50 on Monday.
Officials continue their search at the site of the weekend blast caused when a runaway tanker train filled with fuel derailed. They caution that the extensive damage caused by the explosion, which flattened buildings and calcinated trees, has made the search for human remains extremely difficult.
Forensic dental experts and a forensic anthropologist, who examines bones, joined the search among the ruins. Officials say they will have to use dental records and DNA to help with identification because many bodies were so badly burned, and the Quebec coroner’s office has asked relatives to provide toothbrushes, razors, hairbrushes, combs or hats to help in the effort.
For anguished families, the painstaking process delays the chance for closure.
“For a town the size of Lac-Mégantic, this is Sept. 11,” said Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, who was in Lac-Mégantic to bring assistance to local health officials. “But it’s different, because everyone knows each other.”
The suddenness and shock of the explosion, which reduced the core of the city to ruins, has left survivors scarred. For some, a decision to take a nap or step outside a bar for a cigarette meant the difference between life and death. Sophie L’Heureux was the manager of the popular Musi-Café, which was packed with patrons when the bar was flattened by the explosion.
Ms. L’Heureux left the bar at 9:30 p.m. on Friday to take a nap. She intended to return at 11 p.m. but overslept. At about 1:15 a.m. on Saturday, the first explosion went off.
She said three waitresses whom she had personally hired are missing. One had started just a month before and loved the job. Ms. L’Heureux also lost countless friends and acquaintances.
“I feel so much pain and loss,” Ms. L’Heureux said in tears near the disaster zone, wearing a red Musi-Café T-shirt. “We’ve lost people we loved.”
She said she is organizing a musical benefit to help out the town, which has been laid to waste at what should have been the start of its tourist season. The showpiece of Lac-Mégantic, its newly renovated centre, now lies in a blackened heap behind orange police tape. Homes are gone, businesses are incinerated, the library has gone up in flames and part of the largest funeral home in town, Jacques et Fils, is ruined.
Some families of the missing are already resigned to never seeing their loved ones again. Sylvie Custeau showed up at the makeshift Red Cross crisis centre in Lac-Mégantic and said that she did not expect to find her brother, Réal Custeau. He lived near the railway tracks and was at home celebrating a friend’s birthday when the careening train derailed and set off a massive explosion.
Her brother would have called if he had made it out alive, his sister said.
“Our brother loves us. I’m sure he would have given us a sign of life if he could,” Ms. Custeau said. “But he was at the front lines that night. And those tankers were like mobile atom bombs.”
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha