Montreal

47 goodbyes: How art and memory are helping Lac-Mégantic rebuild hope 5 years on

As the town of Lac-Mégantic commemorates the 47 people killed during the 2013 train derailment, resident of the small community are keeping their memories alive and pushing to see their town strive again.

Quebec community marks 5 years since the deadly train derailment of July 6, 2013

Gilles Baril, the priest of the local parish in Lac-Mégantic stands in front of Saint-Agnès church, where a memorial stone was put up with the names of the 47 victims. (Julia Page/CBC)

"There's a train that exploded behind the library."

The phone call came at 1:30 a.m. ET on July 6, 2013.

Paul Dostie's 85-year-old mother-in-law was on her balcony, looking out at the inferno, when a second explosion resonated over the line.

A runaway train, carrying 7.7 million litres of crude oil, had just rolled down the steep hill above the town and derailed.

Forty-seven people died in the explosion. The youngest had just turned four. The eldest was 93.

Five years later, their portraits are displayed inside a black and white booklet called Confidences, created by Dostie.

The short poems that accompany the photos will be read during a ceremony in Lac-Mégantic over the weekend, as part of a series of commemorative events marking the tragedy.

Lac-Mégantic resident Paul Dostie wanted to give hope to people in his town by writing 47 poems, paying tribute to the victims of July 6, 2013. (Julia Page/CBC)

"After five years, like when you're in remission from cancer, you start to think 'Yes it's possible. Maybe I can start to think about living again,'" said Dostie.

Now retired, Dostie taught French to an entire generation of Méganticois.  

He wanted to give hope to his community by imagining what those who died would want to say today.

"Smile and love life, that would be the most beautiful tribute we could give them".

Town loses archives

The reading planned for Saturday is only one example of how people are trying to reclaim their town and give meaning to the tragedy that made headlines around the world.

His mother-in-law eventually found help next door and fled, a story similar to that of many people who are only now willing to share what they experienced, Dostie said, an indication that a new chapter is about to open.

Diane Roy is hoping in the coming years to collect archives from people in the Lac-Mégantic region, to replace those destroyed on July 6, 2013. (Julia Page/CBC)

For Dostie's wife, Diane Roy, one of the first signs of rebirth for the town was the reopening of the library in 2014.

Like most historical buildings in the downtown, it was a total loss. The archives, donated by people in the region since its opening in 1991, had disappeared.

The night of the fire, once she knew her mother was safe, her thoughts quickly turned to her life's work as a volunteer with the small library.

"I thought 'Oh no, la bibliothèque, the archives'. I was so angry," she said.

In an ironic twist of fate, the books and archives were set to be moved at the end of the summer of 2013, and had been the last topic discussed by the board of directors in June.

"It was the worst thing for me. To realize we asked people to give us their archives, to trust us, and it went up in smoke in a couple of hours," Roy said, her eyes swelling with tears.

Claude Grenier points to the building where his studio used to stand in downtown Lac-Mégantic. (Julia Page/CBC)

Now that the library is rebuilt, Roy has stepped down from her role, admitting the fatigue of a gruelling five-year race has caught up with her.

Roy also sees the fifth anniversary as a turning point, an opportunity to look forward.

"Life is beginning to come back in the centre of town. For me that's the best signal, to see the lights in the houses over there," she said, pointing to the new apartment buildings that people have moved into, where the town's historic buildings used to stand.

Shooting photos of the void

One of the buildings that was demolished in the months following the crash was Claude Grenier's studio.

The photographer's shots of what Lac-Mégantic used to look like were published by news networks across the globe in 2013 to illustrate the devastation.

Grenier remembers climbing up a mountain the next morning to have a view of the city. He took five or six photos, enough to see his building was still standing.

He didn't touch his camera for months afterward.

"I hit a wall, like everyone. I wasn't able to go back to work," Grenier said inside his new studio, which overlooks the railway and the old town centre.

Grenier rented an office space in front of the empty lot where the downtown used to be. (Julia Page/CBC)

After leaving Lac-Mégantic for several months "to recharge." Grenier returned and found a new space where he now greets visitors looking to see what are archival photos of the town.

For him, speaking about the past has been therapeutic.

"We're focusing on the downtown that is empty, but there is so much beauty around us."

Through his work, Grenier was also invited into people's lives during their most vulnerable moments.

A contract for a wedding between a firefighter and a nurse who were first responders during the disaster has particularly stayed with him.

When the bride walked into Saint-Agnès church, which overlooks the downtown, he captured a shot with only the void behind her.

"When I took that photo — it said a lot."

The church's central location made it a natural gathering place in the days following the tragedy.

The local priest, Gilles Baril, said whiteboards set up on the walls outside were quickly filled with messages of support and sympathy.

Forty-eight sculptures have been installed through the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., to honour the 47 victims of the train disaster and a local firefighter who died by suicide after responding to the derailment of July 6, 2013. (Julia Page/CBC)

Visitors continued to regularly show up at the church in the years that followed "to try to understand why this happened," said Baril, up to 100 people a day during the summer.

This pushed the town to set up an exhibit in 2018 in the church basement, capturing the countless acts of generosity and kindness that have kept pouring in from across the country.

"Everyone contributed what they could, and that's what's extraordinary," said Baril, giving the example of a nearby Christmas tree producer who delivered 47 trees on the first Christmas following the disaster. 

The exhibit in the basement of the Sainte-Agnès church pays tribute to first responders and individuals who helped the citizens of Lac-Mégantic during the tragedy. (Julia Page/CBC)

While the official number of deaths recorded is 47 people, Baril said a young firefighter from Lac-Mégantic died by suicide shortly after taking part in the rescue efforts.

"The official count is 47 people, but among ourselves we always say there were 48 victims in this tragedy."

48 sculptures

A collective group of artists has created a two-kilometre sculpture walk that runs through the town in honour of these 48 residents.

Stained-glass artist Maurice Gareau had only been living in Lac-Mégantic for one year when the train derailed, a place he considered to be "paradise."

"You couldn't imagine that a place like that would burn up in flames, it felt like war," he said, by the side of the majestic lake that carries the city's name.

Forty-eight unique sculptures were created to honour the victims of the rail disaster and are displayed along a two-kilometre route through the town of Lac-Mégantic. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

From terror, to sadness, he saw a community thrive to put things back into place, through both small and larger victories

"We lived so many strong emotions. When they took the fences off, everyone was screaming, all those small things we lived through created a strong bond." 

Initially approached to create one sculpture in honour of each victim, the artists proposed instead to not link the names, but rather illustrate 48 beings moving toward the stars, a positive, creative piece that would move forward in time.

"People don't need a reminder of the tragedy. They want to feel that the community is healing."

From a relative newcomer in 2013, he now feels at home in Lac-Mégantic, a place he thinks will become an example of an innovative, modern, city. 

Maurice Gareau is one of 48 artists who collaborated on the artistic circuit 'Marcheur d'étoiles,' in honour of the victims of the train disaster. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

For this to happen however, he believes the train must leave the downtown and take a bypass around the city centre, as was promised by the federal and provincial governments in May. 

"I think people of Lac-Mégantic deserve that."

About the Author

Julia Page

Journalist

Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.

With files from Rebecca Martel