6 years after Lac-Mégantic derailment, citizens 'coping' with trauma, study finds

A church ceremony will be held in Lac-Mégantic Saturday afternoon to mark six years since the deadly derailment that left 47 dead.

Residents remain 'divided' over bypass route, reconstruction efforts, says mayor

A stone monument was inaugurated in front of Ste-Agnès church, in Lac-Mégantic, with the names of the 47 victims of the 2013 derailment. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julia Morin says that waking up on the morning of July 6 will "always bring back very deep emotions" as the city marked six years since the tragic train derailment that transformed the town.

A church ceremony is being held at 4 p.m. on Saturday to honour the 47 people who died that night in the small town of 6,000 in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned train rolled down the steep hill above Lac-Mégantic, derailing and exploding in the centre of town.

Several people who died that night were friends, gathered at the local Musi-Café pub to enjoy the warm summer night.

"More sober" than the activities organized in 2018 for the fifth anniversary, Morin said this year the town wanted to reflect that citizens are living a "collective grief," each in their own way.

"Some need more time to reflect and look back — others want to participate in activities and move forward," said Morin.

That duality is reflected in the events marking the anniversary this weekend. A choir concert was held inside the church Friday night, "a beautiful moment for contemplation," said Morin.

But the town is also abuzz as athletes from around the world gather over the weekend for the third Canada Man/Woman Xtreme Triathlon. 

"For those who want to challenge themselves, it's really a great event," said Morin.

Study suggests residents feeling better

A study from the regional public health authority, released in June, suggested that seven out of 10 adults "still showed signs of post-traumatic stress."

But overall, the mental health indicators have improved, according to the head of public health for the Eastern Townships, Mélissa Généreux.

"I'm pretty convinced that this community is stronger than ever, and really it's not only a cliché," Généreux told CBC Quebec's Breakaway host Alison Brunette.

In 2018, Lac-Mégantic inaugurated a two-kilometre sculpture walk that runs through the town in honour of the victims. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Généreux has been monitoring the levels of stress, anxiety and substance abuse of residents since 2014, working closely with local partners to find ways to intervene and foster healing.

Adults still report having nightmares, and avoid things that take them back to the night of the derailment, Généreux said, but they are also learning how to better cope with the trauma.

"They're dealing with it more and more, they're still functioning well, so I think all of this is a very good sign for the community," she said.

Division over new bypass

The study also revealed that the announcement for a bypass in May 2018 "had significantly contributed to their healing," Morin said.

Nonetheless, she recognized that plans to build a new railway around town will have an impact on other citizens.

"No one wants it in their backyard, but it's the safest route," Morin said.

Quebec's environmental review board, known as the BAPE, began public hearings in June in Lac-Mégantic to hear from citizens.

Several participants questioned why the rail yard for locomotives will remain at the top of the hill overlooking Lac-Mégantic — one of the factors that led to the 2013 disaster.

If the proposed bypass project is approved, the train tracks that run through the centre of Lac-Mégantic will be dismantled. (Julia Page/CBC)

The hearings continue on July 16.

Meanwhile, Morin hopes the project will go ahead to "get the train out of town as soon as possible."

The city asked that no train circulate through Lac-Mégantic on July 6.

With files from Radio-Canada