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The Globe and Mail

From revelry to wreckage at the Musi-Café

Oil tanker cars are a common site on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in Nantes, Que., near Lac-Mégantic.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

It was the heart of Lac-Mégantic, depending on the day of the week. A well-worn and popular bar on the small town's main drag, not far from the railway tracks.

Early Saturday morning, the Musi-Café was packed with revellers who gathered to celebrate birthdays and listen to a live music duo.

"Every Friday, the Musi-Café is full – birthday or not," resident Pascal Lacroix said. "It was beautiful out, there were musicians – everyone was out to have a good time. Just like every weekend."

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But for many of the bar-goers, it would be their last night alive.

The bar's location put the customers at the epicentre of catastrophe, turning a joyous gathering into the focal point of a tragedy whose dimensions are still not fully known.

The blast sent a towering wall of flames toward the Musi-Café and gave the patrons moments to flee. For some, it was too little time. The nightspot is now a pulverized wreck, and many inside the beloved landmark are unaccounted for.

Jacques Bolduc and Solange Gaudreault emerged from a community centre on Sunday after providing a DNA sample to potentially identify their son, Guy Bolduc, a 23-year-old singer who was performing at the bar.

"Our boy wanted so much to live," Mr. Bolduc told Radio-Canada. "The police told us there is no hope. The train exploded 30 feet from the (Musi-Café) bar."

Lac-Mégantic is a tight-knit town of 6,000 in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and few residents have been left untouched by the tragedy. Many who turned up in front of the high school Polyvalente Montignac, which is currently serving as the town's main shelter, came seeking information about loved ones, already fearing their relatives had perished.

"This hurts. My brother loved life," said Henri-Paul Audet, who went to the shelter in search of news about his missing sibling, 58-year-old Fernand. His brother lived near the railway tracks and hasn't been heard from since the explosion. "What happened makes no sense, there had to be negligence," Mr. Audet said.

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Others mourned the bar-goers who had gathered to celebrate a birthday. One woman who emerged from the shelter on Sunday said her nephew, his wife, and his sister-in-law were all in the Musi-Café on Saturday. They have not been heard from since.

Between them – they have not been accounted for – they leave two young children orphaned and three other children without a mother. "It still hasn't sunk in," the aunt said.

With more than 2,000 local residents forced from their homes, Facebook pages are filled with messages from family members desperately looking for loved ones. Many of those still missing are young men and women who were out enjoying the nightlife on a warm summer night.

Bernard Théberge, 44, a cook who lives on the outskirts of Lac-Mégantic, was out with his friends at the Musi-Café, one of the most popular hangouts in town and the last known whereabouts of many of the missing. The Musi-Café is a few metres from where the tracks cross Frontenac Street, Lac-Mégantic's main drag.

Mr. Théberge was on the patio in front of the café, smoking a cigarette, when the derailment happened. He said he heard the train coming and knew something was wrong.

"It was going way too fast," Mr. Théberge said. "I saw a wall of fire go up. People got up on the outside patio. I grabbed my bike, which was just on the railing of the terrasse. I started pedalling and then I stopped and turned around. I saw that there were all those people inside and I knew right away that it would be impossible for them to get out."

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Mr. Théberge said he tried to help people escape: "But there was just fire everywhere."

"Smoking saved my life," he said with a voice raspy from the heat and smoke. His right arm was bandaged to treat second-degree burns.

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