Lac-Megantic marks seventh anniversary of 2013 rail disaster with memorial site

Seven years after a rail disaster decimated its downtown, Lac-Megantic sought Monday to honour both its past and future by inaugurating a long-planned memorial space at the site at the heart of the tragedy.

On July 6, 2013, a runaway train hauling tanker cars loaded with volatile crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of 6,000 and exploded, claiming 47 lives and destroying a large part of the downtown area.

The memorial -- which has taken three years to construct -- will be set up at the site of the former Musi-Cafe in the heart of the town, where staff and patrons made up many of the victims.

Mayor Julie Morin said that, like the Musi-Cafe, the new space would serve as a gathering place and an "anchor" for the community.

While the space has been inaugurated, Morin noted that construction delays due to COVID-19 meant that some elements have yet to be completed. In her speech, she drew parallels to the rebuilding of the town's downtown and the citizens' mourning process.

"Since the night of July 6, history has taught us that rebuilding our lives, rebuilding our city, takes time," she said.

"The appropriation of the (commemorative site) will happen in the same way, gradually."

She said the space should be completed by Aug. 15.

The project, designed by architects Pierre Thibault and Jerome Lapierre, was created with the objective of allowing everyone to remember, in their own way, the community-changing event.

Lapierre said the site was designed to be a "place of mixed emotions" that would represent both mourning and moving forward.

The site will feature "speaking" rocks from the Musi-Cafe site, which will be engraved with different words.

"The people who are going to come here will, through these rocks that speak, find memories of moments that I would say are ... difficult, but that I think have shown a community's ability to pick itself up," Thibault said.

There will also be 48 silhouettes, one for each of the 47 victims and an additional one representing residents and visitors to the memorial, the architects said.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing measures, the inauguration was streamed on Facebook, with several guests attending in person and residents invited to visit in the days and weeks to come.

The bells of nearby Ste-Agnes Church rang at noon in tribute to the victims.

Earlier, the city said it has obtained written confirmation from Canadian Pacific Railway that no train will run through Lac-Megantic on July 6.

Morin said it was the least that could be done out of respect for citizens who still have to watch trains passing through the heart of the town daily.

The city wants the authorization to be renewed in perpetuity, even after a railway bypass is built and the downtown rails are dismantled.

In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his condolences and said Ottawa remains committed to the bypass.

"Despite the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made progress on the Lac-Megantic rail bypass project in recent months, and our government is still committed to its successful completion," he said in a statement.

"We will continue to work closely with the surrounding communities and other partners to ensure the well-being of residents."

Construction work is expected to begin next year, with a scheduled completion date of 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.

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