Two years on, there's still a pile of toxic dirt where the centre of Lac-Mégantic used to be.
Guarded 24 hours a day by security and surrounded with fences, it's a daily reminder of what happened July 6, 2013, when an unmanned train with 72 tankers carrying 8 million litres of crude oil careened into town, exploding in its core.
The pile of dirt acts as a block in the direct path to what's been reconstructed. The railway remains steadfast in the centre, its bend separating what's left of the old city centre from the new.
This is a site where a quiet tension has been building: Residents attempt to hold on to what's left of their heritage, yet have been given no choice but to build anew. Reconstruction efforts have moved quickly to create a commercial renaissance, while also stalling to fill what they often call le trou – the hole. It is a constant reminder of what was lost, like a tombstone.
On the anniversary of the tragedy, a mass, a moment of silence and the ringing of the the Sainte-Agnès church bells is all that will commemorate the day of one of Canada's worst rail disasters, which killed 47 members of the tight-knit community, and left a burnt-out crater where the heart of a city used to be.
"We are really sad about our centre-ville. You have to understand that there were buildings that were destroyed though they were not contaminated," says Jonathan Santerre, the founder of Le Carré Bleu Lac-Mégantic, a citizen's group pushing for more transparency and dialogue about development plans from the city moving forward.
The turn-of-the-century heritage buildings that survived the crash were part of what gave Lac-Mégantic its Eastern Township charm. They represented the city's rail-town character, its history.
On Google Street View, you can still see what residents were fighting in vain to save from demolition after the train crash; buildings such as the L'Eau Berge Inn, sitting in what would become the red zone, or Salon Claude.
"It was not the train that destroyed them," says Mr. Santerre. "It was the politics, and city hall."
Ironically, the municipal train station on Rue de la Gare survived and remains standing.
Mr. Santerre is a man exasperated by what he calls "a law of silence" surrounding the urban planning and environmental decisions that are being taken here. A few days prior to the July 6 anniversary, he marched with residents to denounce the return of crude oil, which will be shipped through town down the rail line come January.
"We had a tragedy with a train, but there are other tragedies," he says, making a point to mention Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.'s recent protest against the $430-million settlement to Lac-Mégantic's victims. "There is an impression here that [the citizens] keep losing, every time."
The federal government has also rejected an inquiry into Transport Canada.
The Musi-Café now sits on the end of a strip of new shops and restaurants that boast the same, trendy architectural stylings. Brown and black and shaped like boxes, the new commercial spaces are a modern departure from the heritage buildings that characterized the old city and a constant point of criticism from residents who feel disregarded by the choices in the redesign.
Reopened in December, the Musi-Café has become Lac-Mégantic's anchor – a symbol of tragedy and growth. More than half of the victims died there.
The bar's owner, Yannick Gagné, believed rebuilding here would be easier. Financial aid from the federal and provincial governments was delayed, and as the renovation nears completion, the city has asked him to change his expensive façade to conform with the surrounding redesign.
"I never stopped to think about what happened, why it didn't happen to me. I'm not there yet." There are darker days, "but I never go to work reluctantly." Mr. Gagné points to his restaurant's features: The ceilings are higher and black granite covers the well-lit bar, accented in wood. The stage hosts big Quebec names a few times a week. Outside, a wrap-around patio hovers over the parking lot, overlooking the river.
A woman in white and her friend in red are sitting outside. "I'm on my pilgrimage," says Margot Lemoine, 68, a Lac-Mégantic native who's lived in Sherbrooke, Que., most of her life. She knew five of the people who perished in the derailment and her family was evacuated from their homes. Ms. Lemoine says she is making a point of visiting her hometown each anniversary, and the Musi-Café is an important part of that.
"To participate in its revival helps me grieve," she says.
For Marc-Antoine Lecours, hiking through the expansive nature and being outside is what helps him cope. Mr. Lecours lost three friends at the Musi-Café and was supposed to be with them that night. High above the city on a hill in the neighbouring town of Fatima, where a cross shines above Lac-Mégantic, he looks down at his city and points.
"What bothers me the most is looking at this and feeling like they didn't consult anyone about tearing down the buildings that were left," he says. "There were constantly people here, there were shops, there were cute little homes on the Boulevard des Vétérans, there was life."
Raymond Lafontaine is frustrated. He's done everything he could to move forward and grieve for his son, two daughters-in-law and an employee he lost in the fire. He travelled Europe, found a new companion after his wife left him because of depression and helped pay for a new condo building in town. But after all he's gone through, coming back to this mound of dirt has inspired him to keep fighting for more concrete action on the part of town officials.
"The progress that Lac-Mégantic has made is zero. There's a pile of dirt at the same place. … It's caught up in the system and that's why it's there," says Mr. Lafontaine, 67, pointing to the construction zone from inside his car. "People are fed up. They know the song by now.
Still, Mr. Lafontaine won't give up on Lac-Mégantic. "I have hope to live and to see this town grow, to see it rebuild," he says. "This is not a normal [circumstance]. … Everyone is paying for this."