Lac-Mégantic marks 10th anniversary of rail disaster that killed 47 people

A rail bypass is to be built to divert trains carrying dangerous goods through the centre of the town

By Morgan Lowrie in Lac-Mégantic

The community of Lac-Mégantic, Que., gathered for a commemorative mass on Thursday to mark the 10-year anniversary of the rail disaster that killed 47 people and destroyed parts of the town centre. 

Federal and provincial politicians attended the ceremony at the Sainte-Agnès church, promising that a long-awaited rail bypass would be built to divert trains carrying dangerous goods through centre of the 6,000-person town.

Speaking to reporters outside the church, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau honoured the strength and resilience of Lac-Mégantic’s people, and recognized that it’s taken longer than hoped to build the bypass.

“I made myself and the community a commitment that we would end the trains coming through this community …. We’re hoping to start construction this fall,” he said.

Inside the church, a slide show displayed photos, one by one, of all the victims as the choir sang. In his homily, Rev. Steve Lemay alluded to the need for action.

“A decade has passed since the tragic events, but they unfortunately do not belong entirely to the past for many,” he said. “Today we can, we must, ask ourselves whether we have done everything to offer the people of this region the context needed so they can at last look after their hearts and find peace.”

Following the service, Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault laid bouquets of flowers at the foot of a memorial outside the church.

Legault spoke to reporters before the mass, urging people to keep hope.

“I know that it’s tough — still tough — for many people, but life has to continue, and we have to try to find good moments,” he said.

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra also attended the ceremony, and he promised that the railway bypass would be built. 

“The community here, I understand, will never fully heal until the bypass is built, until they stop seeing the trains run through the heart of Lac-Mégantic, and that’s why we’re committed to it,” he told reporters.

Hours earlier, a stream of flickering lights illuminated the darkness of Lac-Mégantic as citizens marched to commemorate the anniversary. A silent march began slightly before 1:14 a.m., marking the moment an unattended train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the heart of town on July 6, 2013.

People donned star-shaped LED lights in memory of the victims as the mayor led a march that departed from the church and made its way down the former main street that was flattened in the disaster, with a pause at a memorial built at the spot where the train struck.

For Michelle Dubé, who lost a niece in the tragedy, the memories from 10 years ago remain vivid. 

“You don’t forget something like that,” she said. “It will take generations to forget.”

Dubé said her niece, Marie-France, “perished in the flames” along with the home and boutique she’d owned on the town’s main street, the buildings destroyed so completely that her remains were never found. While that adds an extra layer of pain, Dubé said nearly everyone in the town has a story of loss. 

“It’s uncles, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, sisters, friends,” she said. “It’s a little town, everyone knows everyone.”

Meanwhile, a citizen’s group planned to lay flowers near the railroad track that still runs through downtown and hold a rally to call for stricter rules to ensure rail safety.

The derailment and fire destroyed much of the downtown core, forced about 2,000 people to evacuate their homes and spilled some six million litres of crude oil into the environment. The disaster happened when the brakes failed on a train parked in nearby Nantes and it barrelled down the slope into the town. While a number of investigations, court cases, reports and regulatory changes have followed, many challenges remain.

The town says it wants to keep the focus of this week’s events on remembering the victims, comforting the survivors and highlighting the progress that has been made. The early-morning march included a walk up the new main street, featuring newly built shops, as a way to highlight the town’s reconstruction.

Nicole Isabelle, a resident attending the march, said she felt the anniversary would help residents move forward, “even if it’s hard to live through.”

Isabelle, who knew several victims, said one of her most vivid memories is of people gathering in the sanctuary following the derailment, clutching pictures of their loved ones as the church filled with flowers.

In the decade that has passed, she says, both the town and the people who live in it have made “big steps” toward rebuilding. 

“We’ve succeeded in moving forward,” she said. “But like with any mourning, it’s never really finished.”

Banner image: Former mayor Colette Roy-Laroche, left, and current mayor Julie Morin, take part in a silent march to pay tribute to the 47 victims of an oil-filled train derailment that occurred ten years ago, Thursday, July 6, 2023 in Lac-Mégantic, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2023.