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One-year anninversary of Lac-Megantic distaster marked with church service

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People watch the mass outside the church on a screen overlooking downtown Sunday, July 6, 2014 in Lac-Megantic, Que.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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People watch the mass outside the church on a screen overlooking downtown Sunday, July 6, 2014 in Lac-Megantic, Que.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Hours after a solemn procession passed the spot where tragedy struck Lac-Megantic a year ago Sunday, crowds packed Ste-Agnes Church to remember the 47 people who perished when a runaway train derailed in the centre of town and exploded.

First responders who plunged in to fight the inferno that erupted after the train jumped the tracks were given a resounding round of applause when they entered the church Sunday in long lines.

Framed photographs of the victims were on display alongside bouquets of flowers at the front of the church, which sits not far from the crash site. In a poignant, personal touch, a baseball glove lay in front of one man's photo.

"How many times has the whole community of Lac-Megantic impressed us, by its wisdom, and its capacity to lift itself up?" said Sherbrooke diocese Archbishop Luc Cyr, who presided over the service.

"You have given us a beautiful message of dignity and strength. Yes, there have been tears and great suffering but at the same time there has been overwhelming generousity and love."

Some of those tears were being shed Sunday by people gathered outside the church to watch the service as it was projected onto a big screen metres from the derailment site. A number of people sat on lawn chairs and dabbed at their eyes.

Parish priest Steve Lemay told the service that it has been a difficult year and he urged the polticians present to continue to provide support for the community.

"I pray and I will continue to pray for the fraternal support you offer us today will continue in the form of concrete decisions and actions.

"We still need help to rebuild our town and protect our environment."

The Sunday service was the latest commemoration in a weekend of events to remember the tragedy. A moment of silence followed the ceremony and a monument to the victims in the form of a large granite book with their names inscribed was dedicated on the church's lawn.

Dignitaries including Gov.-Gen. David Johnston and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard lay bouquets of flowers in front of the monument after attending the church service late Sunday morning.

After the service, Mayor Colette Roy Laroche urged Lac-Megantic residents to "keep the faith."

"We will rebuild our town more beautiful than ever."

Both Couillard and International Development Minister Christian Paradis, who represented Prime Minister Stephen Harper, pledged to continue to help the town.

"We will never forget the victims whose names are etched in stone but we will also see that life will again triumph in Lac-Megantic," Couillard said.

Johnston praised the community's "remarkable spirit of resilience."

"The Archbishop of Sherbrooke spoke today in the church about daring to see a new life, not simply a normal life, but a new life, a life charged with a sense of hope for the children and grandchildren, and in that great spirit of solidarity the people of Canada salute Lac-Megantic."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was not present, marked the first anniversary of the tragedy in a statement, noting the "resilience, determination and extraordinary strength of character" of Lac-Megantic residents.

"No passage of time can erase from our consciousness the lives lost, the injured and the families torn apart by this tragedy," Harper said.

"Having witnessed this first-hand during my visits, I owe these people my greatest admiration," said Harper, who was represented at Sunday's ceremony by International Development Minister Christian Paradis, who is also the local MP.

Johnston announced earlier that he is presenting the Commendation for Outstanding Service to the first responders and citizens of Lac-Megantic and the surrounding communities, "as a way of recognizing their extraordinary efforts and exceptional kindness and caring."

Earlier Sunday morning, more than 1,000 people marched in solemn silence in the darkness after observing a moment of silence at 1:15 a.m. That was the exact moment on July 6, 2013 when the fuel-laden train derailed and exploded in a series of cataclysmic fireballs.

Though a year has passed, the emotional scars in the community remain as deep as the physical damage that is still so apparent on the local landscape.

The march followed a midnight mass and a moving speech by Mayor Colette Roy Laroche, who received two thunderous rounds of applause and two standing ovations from about 1,200 people who packed Ste-Agnes Church.

"For several minutes we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn't true," Roy Laroche said of the July 6 catastrophe in a speech also watched by about 200 people on a big screen outside the building.

"But what happened to us was a nightmare. When we removed our hands (from our eyes), the horror was still there and the worst was to come."

She urged townsfolk to turn the page on the tragedy and look to the future, but to never forget.

Roy Laroche, who became a household name in Quebec for her leadership and poise in the disaster's aftermath, also asked the community to stick together to overcome any future obstacles.

"A year ago, we found ourselves in one of the worst tragedies in the histories of Quebec and Canada," she said.

"We were also covered by the biggest wave of love and solidarity that modern Quebec has ever known."

In his sermon during Sunday's midnight mass, Rev. Steve Lemay, the parish priest, offered words of comfort.

"There's still more road to cover," said Lemay, who presided over many of the victim's funerals and has opened up about how hard the year has been on him.

"Many of us are still suffering from the consequences of the catastrophe that struck us . . . .

"We have suffered and cried together, we worked together, walked together and it's together that we will continue on the path."

Many participants in the march wore glowing plastic stars on their chests. Several wiped away tears as they held hands with the person next to them.

Most stared sadly at the downtown area where dozens of buildings were gutted. To this day the zone remains off-limits behind metal fences as decontamination work continues.

A half-dozen people left the march to sit side-by-side on the railway track, looking at their broken town.

Nearby a woman stood by herself, gazing in the same direction while weeping quietly in the darkness.

"I think it was important to do this to complete our mourning process," said walker Bernard Boulet, whose sister Marie-France was declared dead in the disaster, though her remains were never found.

She lived in the downtown area that was incinerated by the explosions. Boulet said several of her family members took part in the events.

"It does us some good," Boulet said of the mass and the march.

On Saturday, the people of Lac-Megantic began their weekend of events to remember the victims of the conflagration that forever changed their town.

Hundreds turned out to watch locals release 5,000 young trout into the lake, plant flowers in a new garden near the train tracks, and free 460 butterflies into the sky.

The gestures were meant to symbolize the water, earth and air — all aspects of the environment contaminated by the nearly six million litres of crude spewed from the smashed tanker cars.

But as the collective healing process moves forward, locals say their terrible emotional wounds have yet to heal.

The pain remains so raw in the community that many planned to avoid the weekend ceremonies, which also include concerts and social events.

Louisette Nadeau, who attended Saturday's flower-planting ceremony, doubted her daughter, who narrowly escaped the explosions, would be able to find the strength to participate in any of the activities.

Nadeau said her daughter Nathalie had just left the Musi-Cafe bar, where dozens died when the train exploded.

She said the first blast knocked Nathalie off her feet and left her with second-degree burns on one arm. Then, the massive flames rushed toward her.

"Luckily, her spouse lifted her up off the ground ... because if not she probably would have burned right there," said Nadeau, whose daughter lost many friends that night.

"It's been a year, but it's like it happened yesterday. She's having a very hard time dealing with this . . . .

"She always says, 'Why me? Why not them?' "

Nadeau said she took part in the flower ceremony to help give strength to those who lost loved ones. She fears, however, that the town may never be the same.

"I hope that one day life will be different," Nadeau, a resident of Lac-Megantic for 30 years, said as she struggled to hold back tears.

"We try to move on, but it's impossible."

Later Saturday, hundreds of people released butterflies at another event near the crash site.

Children giggled as some butterflies clung to their fingertips, at first refusing to fly. The moment brought smiles to hundreds of faces.

Linda Gendreau, a Lac-Megantic resident who watched as children helped release trout into the lake Saturday, said the community has yet to free itself from the grip of the catastrophe.

She said the commemorative events are important steps in the town's recovery.

"It's an intense life moment that we're living through in Lac-Megantic," said Gendreau, who lost a work colleague and several acquaintances in the disaster.

"We are very much in the presence of the consequences of the tragedy, so it's a process."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

- with files from Melanie Marquis in Lac-Megantic and Nelson Wyatt and Benjamin Shingler in Montreal

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