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People join in an unofficial candle-light vigil on the steps of St. Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 12, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

From the steps of Ste-Agnès church, Nathalie Bouffard stares at the wreckage in Lac-Mégantic, Que., the place she called home for the first 20 years of her life.

"This is very hard," said Ms. Bouffard, with her 13-year-old daughter, Erika, by her side. "This is the town of my youth. I can't believe this."

Like Ms. Bouffard, hundreds of people came to Ste-Agnès on Friday, where only about a hundred metres away a train carrying crude oil derailed last Saturday causing several explosions. Twenty-eight people have been confirmed dead, while 22 others are missing and presumed dead.

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As police open more of the downtown area to residents, the church has become the centre of activity in this small Quebec town. And with police barricades now only metres from the crash site, the degree of devastation – and grief – is more visible.

Many people came to Ste-Agnès on Friday to talk with Father Steve Lemay, while others came to see friends and family. Some simply stood on the steps of the church, slightly elevated above the crash site, and stared at what was below.

Jacqueline Roy, 75, wasn't immediately prepared to write her thoughts on the yellow construction paper heart she was given when she entered Ste-Agnès. She said she would take her time to think about what she wanted to express. "I find this very sad. Seeing our city like this is like the sky falling."

Inside the church, Father Lemay talked with residents as dozens of candles burned at the altar. He wouldn't give interviews to the media, saying: "I have to be with my people right now." A woman greeting residents at the front of the church said he had many funerals to prepare for.

By late afternoon, two notice boards at the front of the church were full of messages on the small paper hearts.

"I miss our letters, our meetings, our laughs, our goodbyes. Please watch over her, everyone here," read one. Another said: "Wish you lots of love and courage as you pass on."

Immediately after the crash, there were few visible signs of public grief in this town. There were no ribbons on the trees; there wasn't even a makeshift memorial.

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That's slowly changing.

The 10 siblings and other relatives of Marie-France Boulet gathered at Ste-Agnès on Friday evening to remember the 62-year-old who was asleep in her downtown apartment when the train derailed.

Her brothers and sisters said they would gather on Friday night to eat pizza together – repeating a long-time tradition shared by Ms. Boulot and her sister, Lucie.

One sister, Martine Boulet-Charest, said it took the siblings several days to come to terms with the idea that Marie-France was gone because police were still referring to those lost since the crash as missing. "Now, they said everyone is dead, even if they haven't identified them," Ms. Boulet-Charest said, including those who have not been identified. "Now we're beginning to grieve."

On Friday, some residents climbed onto the roof of a small building on Laval Street for a vantage point of the crash site. From there, turned-over rail tankers can be seen and the skeleton of what was once a Dollarama. The Musi-Café, the popular nightspot directly beside the tracks, is gone. In its place stand yellow tents erected by police to identify body fragments. Some residents pulled out their iPhones to capture the devastation.

People also took pictures from the steps of Ste-Agnès. A vigil had been planned here for Friday night but was cancelled, with the mayor citing security concerns. Still, more than 100 people gathered outside the church Friday evening, holding candles and speaking softly to each other. People of all ages walked in and out of the open doors and paused to embrace one another on the steps.

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Vigils are also planned in cities across Quebec. In the Eastern Townships village of Sutton, residents planned to gather at a track spur owned by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the same railway company involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Some residents say that the true impact of the explosion won't sink in until the final police barricades are removed, and residents can walk freely through the downtown.

"We have lots of images on TV that come to us, but I think it's quite strange, this feeling you have, you can see these places nearby but you still can't have this connection," said Ahmed Rahal, 37, who stood in front of Ste-Agnès taking pictures with his wife Julie Lafontaine. "You're still far away, where you can't see the details … You still can't really get a hold of what happened, what really is there now."

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