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

Town has planned several days of events to highlight the anniversary
People walk across the former main street as they 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 Megantic, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

A stream of flickering lights illuminated the darkness of Lac-Mégantic in the early hours of Thursday morning as citizens marched to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the rail disaster that killed 47 people and destroyed much of the downtown core.

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 build at the place 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 her home and the 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 6,000-person 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.”

The town has planned several days of events to highlight the anniversary, including concerts, exhibits on the town’s past and present, and a commemorative mass at 11 a.m. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault are both expected to join in the events paying tribute to the victims.

A citizen’s group will also 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 from 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.

A long-promised railway bypass that was supposed to ensure trains no longer pass through the town’s core has not yet been built, and the proposed route has been met by fierce opposition from residents of nearby towns whose land stands to be expropriated.

In the meantime, rail safety activists and the town’s mayor have said the trains transporting hazardous materials through the town have only gotten longer, leading them to fear another disaster.

However, 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 at the march, said she felt the anniversary will 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 ten years that have passed, she says both the town and the people who live in it have made “big steps” towards rebuilding.

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

READ ALSO: 10 years after Mégantic, rail experts say stricter rules, enforcement needed