Seven years ago, the heart of Lac-Mégantic was a hellish inferno, the death toll of the railway disaster still unknown, obscured by the smoke and heat from burning oil.
Today, the spot where most of the 47 people died in a few minutes in the early morning of July 6, 2013, will start a final transformation from long-term decontamination project to hallowed ground. Town officials and families of the dead will inaugurate L’Espace mémoire, a plaza that will fan out from the edge of the former downtown and feature a Zen-inspired garden for quiet contemplation. The project’s finishing touches are scheduled to be completed later this summer.
The triangular town square commemorates the dead but also all that was lost to the town of 6,000 people when a runaway oil train raced downhill unattended and derailed, spilling six million litres of burning fuel that destroyed the town’s entire central business district.
Atelier Pierre Thibault, an esteemed Quebec architecture company, designed the plaza, a $600,000 project funded by Ottawa and Red Cross donations that poured in from across Canada. The town had a three-year process of consultation among townspeople, families, first responders, local leaders and the architects to reach consensus on a design that balanced commemoration with the need for a useful public space.
“This will certainly mark another page turned, for families and for everyone,” said Richard Custeau, whose brother Réal Custeau, 57, died in the disaster. Mr. Custeau sat on the L’Espace mémoire committee that hashed out plans for the site. “We tried to put together a vision that tied together what everyone wanted.”
The plaza, 30 metres long, starts at a narrow point on Frontenac Street, which was Lac-Mégantic’s main thoroughfare, not far from where it intersects with the fateful tracks. It is shaped like a Japanese hand fan, with each fold serving as a long bench to sit or path to walk. At its centre and low point is a gravel garden that is intended to be a place of reflection.
Stones excavated from the site during the decontamination process have been placed in the garden with inspirational messages yet to be unveiled. Higher up along the fan will be long concrete benches where people can view the nearby lake and distant mountains. The park ends in a small forest that will provide shade and colour against the rest of the barren field where two-storey brick businesses and apartments stood.
Architect Jérome Lapierre said the aim of the Japanese-inspired design is to create a “bright, sober, serene” space. “The stones are the element that remains of the downtown. The messages engraved in the stones will nourish the space. A stroll will allow for discoveries,” Mr. Lapierre said during a springtime update to Lac-Mégantic citizens about the project.
One stone marks the precise spot of Musi-Café, the bar where three-quarters of the dead were celebrating on the night the train exploded. Another sits near the apartment where two young girls and their mother died.
Forty-eight symbolic silhouettes will be engraved into the benches over the summer to commemorate the 47 dead plus those who suffered in the aftermath. That feature of the project was a matter of some debate. A granite memorial shaped like a book with the names of the dead stands in front of the church a few dozen metres away. Some families wanted no extra specific commemoration in the park while others thought they should be named.
Mr. Custeau said the committee explored a series of memorial possibilities, from installing 47 stars to 47 boulders. That many boulders would have made the park look too much like a cemetery, Mr. Custeau said. “I think we found the right balance.”
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin said 2020 is an important year for her city’s recovery. L’Espace mémoire will finally heal one of the biggest physical scars. While the book on the rail disaster will never be closed, final negotiations are under way to pay the last of the cleanup bills.
“Governments along the way have said they would be there for us. We are getting close to the end of that,” Ms. Morin said.
Work remains, however. Millions of dollars of redevelopment projects remain to be completed, including a 72-room hotel that will help with the growing tourist trade in their corner of the Eastern Townships. The town volunteered to have Hydro-Québec install 3,000 solar panels to turn the rebuilt downtown into Quebec’s first largely self-sufficient “micro-grid” of electricity. The project should be completed later this year.
Most importantly, work is slowly progressing on the $133-million project to move the downtown rail line to the outskirts of town. Planning is under way and construction will not be completed before 2024 at the earliest. “It’s coming. We’re hopeful. But as long as that train passes in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, people will worry,” she said. “It still cuts downtown in half.”
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