The house that Raymond Lafontaine built 21 years ago is full of family memories.
Framed photos of her grandchildren line the walls. Her brother’s handcrafted stained glass windows are installed in the living room, which overlooks the majestic waters of Lac-Mégantic, Que. And on the chest of drawers there is a single candle, engraved with a photo of his son, Gaétan.
But Lafontaine’s house, once lively, is now quiet.
Gaetan is dead; Lafontaine’s grandchildren, orphans. Raymond and his wife are separated. The construction business he built is up for sale, his surviving children burned out with stress.
Ten years ago, in the early morning of July 6, 2013, the Lafontaine family was devastated.
Gaétan and Raymond’s two daughters-in-law, Karine Lafontaine and Joanie Turmel, along with an employee, Marie-Noëlle Faucher, were among the 47 people killed after a train carrying crude oil derailed on the main street of Lac-Mégantic, a city of approximately 6,000 located in the eastern townships of Quebec, just north of Maine.
Another of Lafontaine’s sons, Christian, called him early in the morning with the news.
“The train derailed,” Lafontaine recalls Christian telling him. He lights a cigarette and takes a seat on his porch, looking out at the pouring rain. “I went down there, and it was right there that they all burned.”
“Since this happened, we don’t feel like we’ve been living. Our children were a gift from above.”
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, the townspeople will embark on a candlelit walk just after 1:00 am on July 6, the time the train derailed.
But Lafontaine will stay at home.
He says mourning his life as it was before 2013 is hard enough, never mind reliving the moment that left his family devastated.
“Every day we think of our children. Every day this tragedy haunts us,” Lafontaine said. “It’s 10 years of nightmares.”
‘We deserve to be happy again’
Isabelle Boulanger will do what she has always done on the anniversary of her son Frédéric Boutin’s death: drop butterflies on his grave.
Frédéric’s body was found outside his apartment building on Rue Frontenac after Hell. He was 19.
“He was always happy,” Boulanger said.
“He always wanted to do some things. And I told him: ‘Don’t be in such a hurry. You’re young. You have a lot of time ahead of you.’ But you know, he wanted to do everything. now.”
To this day, Boulanger says she still can’t get past Rue Frontenac, where her son died.
“I guess I feel like it’s a graveyard,” she says.
Boulanger finds solace in the little things.
“We were lucky to have a complete body and we were able to put it in a coffin,” he says, unlike most families of the victims.
Boulanger and her family have worked hard to get over the loss of their “lovely and loving little girl.”
“We were so sad all the time…and at one point we looked at ourselves, my husband, my daughters and me, and we said: ‘Frédéric wouldn’t like us to be sad all the time,'” she said. Boulanger. .
“We deserve to be happy again.”
‘There is no good place for the railway ring road’
Walking around the farm where Boulanger grew up on the outskirts of Lac-Mégantic, he said the family will soon have new difficulties to overcome.
After years of delay, the provincial and federal governments are making good on their promise to move the railway line which still runs through the center of the city, past the street where the train derailed and exploded, and past the monument to the 47 victims.
The planned detour goes through the farm where Boulanger’s mother still lives.
Property owners along the new route have been told that the government will take physical possession of the expropriated parcels of land required for the project in August.
Watching the trains pass through the farm, day after day, will not be easy.
“It’s going to be a reminder, every day, that that train took my son,” Boulanger said.
He plans to continue fighting for the new route with his neighbors, but he knows that there is no perfect solution.
“There is no good place for the rail diversion. There will be unhappy people wherever they put it.”
Denis Godin agrees.
Godin, Lac-Mégantic’s security director, says that while some residents are unhappy with the new route, others will be relieved that trains no longer run through the city.
Since the disaster, trains have been forced to slow down when taking the curve on the street where the diesel carriages derailed. That and other precautions make townspeople safer, Godin said.
recover from trauma
Godin, a volunteer firefighter for the past 32 years, was a captain of the fire service in 2013.
He was supposed to be on call that July 6, but the day before he changed shifts with the director.
He drove to his chalet, which has no cell service.
“My children realized that there was a tragedy,” Godin said.
“They texted me and they texted me, over and over again. The messages were not being delivered.”
Godin says his daughter drove to his cabin once she discovered it was out of order.
When she told him what had happened, Godin said he thought it was a joke.
“She said: ‘There is no more downtown. The whole town is burning.’ And then she spoke to her sister to tell her that everything was fine,” Godin said, breaking down in tears.
He arrived in town on Sunday, the day after the derailment, and helped lead the search for the missing.
“The most important thing for me was to make sure that our firefighters were not the ones to recover the bodies of the victims,” Godin said.
“Some of them might recognize the victims. I saw the bodies that were pulled out, and I wouldn’t want that for my firefighters.”
Then, he says, several members of the team sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Among them is Éric Mercier.
The volunteer firefighter worked three straight days with little rest after the derailment.
It cost him his mental health.
“I didn’t sleep at all. I slept about five or ten hours a week and had a lot of nightmares. One night I had a nightmare and the whole family [came] in my room and I didn’t want my family to see me like this.”
He says that in the months and years that followed, it affected many others in the city as well. “There are some people who die in the tragedy, but some … died on the inside,” Mercier said.
‘We are not victims’
Mercier says he wouldn’t have made it without his wife’s support. He sought therapy and got a job in a neighboring town to cope with the trauma.
“It was good to get out of the city, to see something else, to see real life, positive life. It was really good to laugh,” Mercier said.
Mercier is still a volunteer firefighter in Lac-Mégantic and also works in fire prevention for the region.
Looking back on the changes that have taken place over the past decade, he said he is hopeful that Lac-Mégantic will be known as more than just the site of a tragic derailment, but as a place of natural beauty with much to offer.
“We don’t want the people of Mégantic to look like a victim,” Mercier said, looking out at the redeveloped center from his office on Rue Frontenac. “We are not victims.”
“We are people, ordinary people, who want to go further.”