A year on, Quebec town remains in grip of 'train from hell'

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A year on, Quebec town remains in grip of 'train from hell'
(FILES) File photo dated July 6, 2013 shows firefighters dousing blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. Police have been raiding the head offices of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway company (MMA) in Farnham, Canada, a few hours drive from Lac-Mégantic July 25, 2013. The accident left 47 dead when the oil tanker train derailed and exploded earlier that month. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Que., Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Que., Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
File- In this July 6, 2013 file photo, workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. On the tranquil bank of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., just across from Portland, Ore., regulators are weighing the fate of what could become the Pacific Northwest’s largest crude oil train terminal: it would receive daily shipments of up to 360,000 barrels of oil via four trains a day rolling through iconic river communities and into the crowded Portland/Vancouver metro area, each train 120 cars and more than a mile long. (AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz, Pool, File)
Environment workers lay booms on the Chaudiere River near Lac-Megantic, Que., to contain the crude oil spill following a train derailment and explosion, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. At least thirteen people were confirmed dead and nearly 40 others were still missing in a catastrophe that raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline. (AP Photo/ The Canadian Press, Jacques Boissinot)
Environment workers lay booms on the Chaudiere River near Lac-Megantic, Que., to contain the crude oil spill following a train derailment and explosion, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. At least thirteen people were confirmed dead and nearly 40 others were still missing in a catastrophe that raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline. (AP Photo/ The Canadian Press, Jacques Boissinot)
Fire fighters continue to water smoldering rubble Sunday, July 7, 2013 in Lac Megantic, Quebec. A runaway train derailed Saturday igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil. (AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS,Ryan Remiorz)
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 13: An unused swing set at a local school where police have set up a temporary command centre, on July 13, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 14: People look out toward the 'red zone' crash site, on July 14, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 14: Julie Roy from neighbouring town Sherbrooke looks out over toward the 'red zone' crash site, on July 14, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 14: Children's chalk drawings, less than a block from the 'red zone' crash site, on July 14, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
Clean-up crews have painted 'empty inspected' on a tanker car in the 'red zone' at Lac-Megantic, the epicenter of the July 6 train derailment that killed 47 people. Canadian authorities say that tanker cars carrying oil exploded when the train derailed. (Photo by Tom Bell/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Beland Audet is director of Logi Bel, a company that loads box cars with lumber produced by 12 sawmills in the Lac-Megantic industrial park. Before the July 6 accident, he would load 10 to 15 carloads a week. He said his customers are now trucking their products, a more expensive shipping method for long distance. He favors building a new 8-mile-long rail line around the downtown (Photo by Tom Bell/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A statue of Jesus Christ overlooks the 'red zone' in Lac-Megantic. This is the view from the front steps of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church, the closest building to the accident. The population of Lac-Megantic is overwhelmingly Catholic. (Photo by Tom Bell/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Sylvain Grégoire sits by a remaining MMA tanker car in Lac-Mégantic. Grégoire is an industrial fire specialist at a large particle board manufacturing plant. On the night of the derailment, he used a company track mover to pull 5 rail tanker cars up hill away from the fire. November 18, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Jean Campagna, Urgent Environment Technician for the Province of Quebec, checks the smell of contaminated soil being stored just north of the Lac-Megantic train derailment site. Over 500,000 tonnes of soil is stored there over several specially made pads larger than a football field in 7 meter high mounds. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Jean Campagna, Urgent Environment Technician for the Province of Quebec, holds a handful of contaminated soil dug out from a large pile. Over 500,000 tonnes of soil from the derailment site is being stored just north of the Lac-Megantic train derailment site. Several specially made pads larger than a football field will hold 7 meter high mounds of soil. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Jean Campagna, Urgent Environment Technician for the Province of Quebec, holds contaminated soil dug out from a large pile. 500,000 tonnes of soil from the derailment site is being stored just north of the Lac-Megantic train derailment site. Several specially made pads larger than a football field will hold 7 meter high mounds of soil. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Jean Campagna, Urgent Environment Technician for the Province of Quebec, points to a 7 meter high mound of contaminated soil, far back, that had been excavated and moved from the train derailment site of Lac-Megantic. Over 500,000 tonnes of contaminated soil is being stored on top of a series of large asphalt pads, middle, each with special runoff water containment feature, right. Several specially made pads larger than a football field will hold 7 meter high mounds of soil. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: A sign showing the sport fish species of Lac Megantic's is seen at the waterfront Parc des Veterans. Oil booms have been floated in place to contain and minimize the environmental impact of the oil spill caused by the MMA rail derailment. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: The ministry of Environment, describes the most severely affected area of the train derailment in Lac-Megantic in an aerial photo of the site. The path of a deadly burning river of oil can be seen as it followed a naturally sloping terrain toward Lac-Megantic, lower left, and incinerated everything in it's path. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: The main street of Rue Frontenac in Lac-Megantic becomes a ghost town after most of the construction workers leave the restricted entry red zone. St. Agnes Presbyterian Church in the background is just outside of the red zone. Residents, shop owners are not permitted inside the red zone during the clean up. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Lac-Mégantic's downtown core and the main street of Rue Frontenac is being excavated by several meters to remove contaminated soil and repair storm sewers. During the MMA train derailment, burning oil filled the storm drains running underneath the street and exploded, blowing out manhole covers before spilling into the nearby Chaudière River. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Snow gathers along a 12 cm high asphalt containment ridge, right, which surrounds a large asphalt pad purposely built to store contaminated soil from the Lac-Megantic train disaster. Trucks will continue to bring in soil to build a pile up to a height of 7 meters. A portion of a completed soil pile can be seen on the far right. The pads, each larger than football field, have water management features to capture and treat rain water run off from the tainted soil. November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, QUE - NOVEMBER 19: Siding of the city garage building near the blast site have melted and buckled from the intense heat. The garage is still used by the City of Lac-Mégantic . November 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: Cots await displaced local residents at a Red Cross disaster relief centre set up at a secondary school July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. The event took place just metres from where a train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: Clothing donations are shown at a Red Cross disaster relief centre set up at a secondary school July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: Local residents attend a public vigil at the Presbyteres-Eglises July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: Suzanne Duval tends grill at her La P'tite Fringale diner July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: A police boat cruises the lake July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. Aerial photographs taken immediately after the disaster show a large oil slick on the lake. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC, CANADA - JULY 12: A group of young men hang out at the beach July 12, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A train derailed and exploded into a massive fire that flattened dozens of buildings in the town's historic district, leaving 60 people dead or missing in the early morning hours of July 6. (Photo by Ian Willms/Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC QC - JULY 8: Search teams dug through the rubble in the town centre of Lac-MÈgantic in search of the dead in front of the Jacques and Fils Crematorium. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC QC - JULY 8: Search teams carry a large white bag out of the rubble in the town centre of Lac-MÈgantic during their search for the dead Monday evening. 40 more are missing after a train derailment caused a massive explosion early Saturday morning. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LAC-MEGANTIC QC - JULY 8: Search teams dig through the rubble through shimmering heat waves in the town centre of Lac-MÈgantic in search of the dead. Five people are confirmed dead and 40 more are missing after a train derailment caused a massive explosion early Saturday morning. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Relief operations continue July 7, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, one day after a train derailment and subsequent explosion and fire. Five bodies of victims have been recovered in Quebec from the catastrophic derailment of an oil-laden cargo train, but 40 people are missing and the toll is expected to rise, Canadian officials said. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters continue to douse burning wreckage on July 7, 2013 after a freight train loaded with oil derailed July 6 in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in a wall of fire. Now scores of people -- perhaps as many as 80 -- are missing. Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris Sunday, more than 24 hours after the spectacular crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night. The accident and resulting huge fireball forced 2,000 people from their homes. Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed at about 1:20 am (0520 GMT Saturday) in Lac-Megantic. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least 80 people are missing after a driverless oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, a firefighter back from the scene told AFP. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least 80 people are missing after a driverless oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, a firefighter back from the scene told AFP. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents stand beneath a cross on a hill overlooking Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province as firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least 80 people are missing after a driverless oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, a firefighter back from the scene told AFP. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least 80 people are missing after a driverless oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, a firefighter back from the scene told AFP. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents watch rising smoke after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least one person has been killed. Some 2,000 people forced from their homes. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse a blaze after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. At least one person has been killed. Some 2,000 people forced from their homes. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2013 file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. Rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars, known as DOT-111s, were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy, File)
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By Richard Valdmanis

(Reuters) - Each time a train rumbles past her house and the clothing shop where she works, Lucie Roy relives the moment last year when explosions leveled much of her neighborhood - and she and her two children narrowly escaped injury.

"I freak out inside when I feel that train shake the ground," she said, looking out a window at the tracks and the blast zone, an open pit crawling with heavy machinery. "I'm doing my best to move on, but it is hard when I have to face my nightmare on a daily basis."

This picturesque lakeside town nestled in the pine-covered hills of eastern Quebec is slowly rebuilding after a train loaded with crude oil crashed in flames in the downtown core nearly a year ago, destroying dozens of buildings and killing 47 people in one of North America's worst rail accidents.

The July 6, 2013, tragedy has become a symbol of what can go wrong when industry ships dangerous cargo on an aging rail system. Oil transport by rail has surged fiftyfold since 2008, when the boom in North American oil production began to overwhelm traditional pipeline networks.

In the incident's aftermath, regulators in Canada and the United States sought to shore up safety with a slew of new rules. But Lac-Megantic is still waiting for recovery and reassurance.

"To move on, the town needs to be repaired and people also need to know that this can never happen again," said the Rev. Steve Lemay of St. Agnes Church, a stone structure on a hill that overlooked the blast. "Right now, we can't pretend that is the case."

The slow pace of recovery has frustrated residents, entrepreneurs and public officials. Hopes that the scores of businesses dislodged by the explosions could restart by the summer tourist season have been dashed by red tape and decontamination work in the blast zone that is expected to drag on for months. Meanwhile, housing prices have slumped.

"There is still a lot of uncertainty, even after a year," said Isabelle Halle, director of the Lac-Megantic Chamber of Commerce. "It is palpable, and it is very discouraging for people who, ultimately, just want their lives back."

ROLLING NIGHTMARE

The 72-car train, dubbed the train from hell, had been parked up a hill from Lac-Megantic when its brakes failed. Unattended, the train rolled downhill 11 km (7 miles) before hitting a curve and derailing near Lac-Megantic's waterfront, which was packed with late-night revelers.

The explosions lit up the sky like daylight, witnesses said, incinerating buildings and trees and spilling millions of gallons of burning crude oil into the lake.

Most of those who died in the blast were at the Musi-Cafe, a popular waterfront bar. Its owner, Yannick Gagne, who was at home that night, is among the business owners trying to rebuild.

Gagne says he can imagine bands playing to crowds on the waterfront deck of his rebuilt bar, but he is not sure when it will happen. Like many businesspeople, he has a spot to rebuild but is waiting for the provincial government to calculate the amount of assistance he will receive.

"In the best case it will be September, but it could be later," he said, standing amid wood and metal frames in a zone set up by the government for dislodged businesses. "The problem is we don't know how much assistance we are getting from the government, and that is slowing us down. We've been waiting for an answer for months."

Quebec's Ministry of Municipal Affairs said some C$4.3 million has been disbursed among 147 businesses that sought aid in the wake of the derailment. An additional 97 requests are still unresolved. A spokeswoman declined to comment on their progress.

That aid is part of more than C$200 million that has been doled out by the governments of Quebec and Canada. Most of that has gone toward the cleanup, rebuilding infrastructure and support to municipal and non-governmental bodies.

MEMORY AND FEAR

The one tangible sign of recovery - the return of freight trains last December - is also one of the town's biggest worries. The train is a constant reminder of the tragedy.

"I hear it 15 minutes before it arrives. I see it, I watch it go by my window," said Helene Metivier, 50, who owns an inn just outside the blast zone. "It is hard. I live with this memory and fear."

An investigation into the crash led to criminal charges against the conductor and two other employees of the now-defunct Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railway, and led Canadian regulator Transport Canada to adopt numerous safety measures, including the phasing out of older DOT-111 tanker cars by 2016.

After the incident, MMA went bankrupt and the rail line was purchased by Fortress Group, a New York investment firm. Repairs on the tracks were completed last fall. Now, trains pass through Lac-Megantic several times a week.

The trains do not carry hazardous materials. But Fortress has said the line, renamed the Central Maine and Quebec, could resume oil shipments after further track upgrades.

Some residents have circulated petitions calling for new tracks that steer clear of town.

"I think everyone wants the rail rerouted around town. It is unanimous. It needs to be done in a way that still serves our industries, but a new track makes sense," said Halle of the Lac-Megantic Chamber of Commerce.

On July 6 the town will mark the anniversary with ceremonies at St. Agnes Church. Outside the church, the statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the blast area - charred in the explosion but now restored - will be a comforting presence for many townspeople.

"It is an important symbol for the town. For people, it is a symbol of faith, a symbol of resistance," the Rev. Lemay said. "The statue faced all of this."

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