LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - Shell-shocked residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, took small steps on a long path back to normalcy on Friday as they returned to homes and businesses just a short walk from the lakeside town’s center, devastated by a fiery rail crash last week.
The town’s main church, Paroisse de Ste-Agnes, opened its doors to mourners, allowing them to drop off pictures, flowers and notes for the estimated 50 people killed.
A few hundred feet away, investigators continued a round-the-clock search of the fenced-off “red zone” for more bodies and clues to the cause of the crash, while a stream of about 30 social workers walked the streets, offering counseling to those in need.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said the accident would transform the way the railway industry does business in Canada but the investigations would take months.
The TSB, a federal government agency, is probing the cause of the crash and focusing on the train’s braking systems, the durability of tanker cars and current crew-size requirements. The agency’s findings will result in policy recommendations, TSB investigator Glen Pilon told Reuters.
The center of Lac-Megantic, which is near the Maine border in Quebec’s bucolic Eastern Townships, now resembles a blackened war zone after a train pulling 72 cars of crude oil jumped the track and exploded into flames there on Saturday in what seems to be the worst rail accident in North America in 24 years.
Authorities have recovered 28 bodies so far, eight of which have been identified. Another 22 people are presumed dead.
Emergency crews are also mopping up an oil spill that covers much of the Chaudiere River, a biodiverse waterway that drains into the huge St. Lawrence River linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite progress in returning people to their homes in recent days, the town’s mayor asked out-of-towners not to come into Lac-Megantic on Friday night for a planned candlelight vigil organized on Facebook, saying it would overwhelm the town.
“Our capacity to welcome visitors is really saturated,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said at a press conference. “We are still in an emergency situation.”
All but 200 of the 2,000 or so people initially evacuated have been allowed to go home. But there were signs patience was wearing thin among those with homes that were still off-limits.
One local, Patrice Laframboise, confronted the mayor at the press conference, touching her elbow and demanding to know if it would be a matter of days, weeks, or months before he would be able to see his house again.
“I need to know to get on with my life,” Laframboise said.
‘START FROM SCRATCH’
Quebec’s environment ministry said that nearly a week after the tragedy, it had contained an oil slick on the Chaudiere River, but warned it would take “weeks to months” to complete the clean-up of the fast-moving waterway.
“There is still a lot of oil that we need to recover, on the banks and near Megantic, so there remains a lot of work to be done,” Michel Rousseau, assistant deputy minister for the environment, told Reuters on Thursday.
About 30 to 50 percent of the surface of the river within 10 kilometers of Lac-Megantic is covered in oil, with traces of the slick mess extending much further downstream, where several towns and businesses depend on it for water supply.
Federal investigators have said they are focusing their probe on whether the train’s operator - Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA)- followed proper safety rules. Police said they have not yet ruled out a crime, possibly criminal negligence.
MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt visited Lac-Megantic this week and said the train’s engineer may not have set enough hand brakes when he parked the train for the night on July 5 in Nantes, a town 8 miles up a gentle slope from Lac-Megantic.
Guy Farrell, deputy director of the Quebec steelworkers’ union, Syndicat des Métallos, said he blamed the incident largely on federal regulations that do not keep operators such as MMA in check.
The oil tanker train that crashed in Lac-Megantic was part of a tide of expanding rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America as oil output soars in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines run out of space.
On Friday, even as the part of Lac-Megantic that was not destroyed hummed with business and pedestrian traffic, residents said they were only at the start of a long road to recovery.
One woman leaving Ste-Agnes church said the ability to memorialize lost ones had been comforting.
“People are going to gather their thoughts and reflect. It gives us some much-needed relief,” said Chantal Roy, a native of Lac-Megantic who lost two long-time friends in the blast.
The reality of how enormous a task it will be to cleanup and rebuild Lac-Megantic’s downtown was starting to sink in.
“We’re still in shock. I think Lac-Megantic will be in shock for a long stretch of time, maybe a year. Then we will need to start from scratch,” said Andre Goslin, a 51-year-old maintenance worker. “This was a beautiful downtown, and now there is nothing left.”
Additional reporting by Julie Gordon and Randall Palmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Peter Galloway and Jim Loney