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A year later, deadly train disaster still haunts people of Lac-Megantic

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Yannick Gagne still pictures the faces of the people at his bustling Quebec bar last summer, many of whom vanished when an oil-filled train screeched off the nearby tracks and exploded in Lac-Megantic.

Even a year later, the owner of the Musi-Cafe still thinks about where his regulars were sitting the night of the deadly July 6 crash. He frequently catches himself trying to figure out where each of them might have scrambled to when they heard the growl of the runaway train bearing down on them.

He often wonders whether they even had time to react.

"What did those people see? What did they think?" Gagne said in an interview in Lac-Megantic, only metres from where his pub — the epicentre of the disaster — once stood.

As the first anniversary approaches, echoes of the event still haunt people in the region, including Gagne who had left the Musi-Cafe less than an hour before the tankers jumped the tracks.

The Musi-Cafe was hopping when the derailment wiped out part of downtown Lac-Megantic and killed 47 people. Gagne estimates about 30 of the people who died that night were at his watering hole, where patrons were enjoying drinks and music.

For Gagne, the months that followed the disaster produced sleepless nights, enormous amounts of stress and gaps in his memory.

"It was the worst night — nightmare — of our lives ... It was hell," said Gagne, who lost staff members in the disaster.

"The people who were there were like a family . . . . I didn't want people to associate me with this my whole life, with this burned area and all of the dead. It was difficult to live through this."

Gagne is far from alone in the community of 6,000, which is still struggling to rebuild and recover.

The regional health authority says hundreds of townsfolk have sought psychological help since the crash, and more people have continued to reach out for assistance every week.

The clinical co-ordinator for the service says many of the locals they treated were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks.

"There are many people who are doing well," said Mychelle Beaule.

"In other cases, there are people who did not seek any help at all following the events of last July and who have sought help more recently."

Meanwhile, signs of the disaster are impossible to miss for the people of Lac-Megantic.

Backhoes and dump trucks have replaced tourists on historic Frontenac Street, where crews continue cleanup work behind a fenced-off area that encircles the still-devastated downtown.

The community's waterfront park remains inaccessible, as do many homes and businesses inside the perimeter.

The odour of petroleum still wafts near the crash site, where millions of litres of crude oil gushed from the smashed tanker cars into the soil, river and lake.

These painful reminders will be compounded this weekend, when many in the community will be forced to grapple with planned anniversary events.

The town will mark the anniversary with activities that include special Roman Catholic masses, the unveiling of a monument and a 47-minute candlelight walk to honour the victims.

But for some, the commemorative events and the return of media attention will be unwelcome, as people who lost loved ones plan to steer clear of the anniversary by leaving town for a few days or by hunkering down at home.

Real Breton, whose 28-year-old daughter Genevieve died at the Musi-Cafe, says even hearing about the anniversary preparations has been difficult, though he intends to attend one of the church services.

"We will once again find ourselves in the nightmare," said Breton, whose daughter had left the Musi-Cafe right before the derailment, but ran back inside to grab a bottle of water only moments later.

Her parents say it was an incredibly difficult year, but they found the strength to spend months working to complete a music album of their daughter's songs, an effort that fulfilled her long-held dream.

Genevieve Breton, who competed on Quebec's American Idol-like TV reality show "Star Academie," had launched the album project shortly before she died.

Real Breton struggled with the process of listening to his daughter's music over and over because it forced him to think about her death a lot.

"It brings back emotions every time we listen to these songs," he said. "Maybe it will get easier over the long term."

Her mother, Ginette Cameron, said at first she didn't even want to share Genevieve's voice, but realized it was important to finish her daughter's project. Part of the profits will be donated to the music program of the high school Genevieve attended in Lac-Megantic.

"I'm lucky to have her voice because a lot of people don't have anything left," said Cameron.

"So, I will be able to hear her for the rest of my life."

Cameron has a more positive view of this weekend's anniversary events, which she says will be an opportunity for those who lost a loved one to support each other.

"There are many of us in the same situation," she said.

"There were 47 victims, so I tell myself that we can get something out of being with the others. For sure, it won't take away pain, but I think it could be helpful."

Pierre Paquet, who lost his 61-year-old brother Roger in the disaster, plans to take part in the memorial events. But he says his sister and his niece — Roger's daughter — are planning to leave town.

The family will gather to remember Roger by eating his favourite meal at a local restaurant: poutine and steamed hot dogs.

He described his younger brother, a father of two, as a man who was good with his hands and who loved to golf with his buddies. The brothers, born 15 months apart, were raised almost like twins.

Paquet broke into tears when asked what he missed most about his brother.

"Him," Paquet said, as tears rolled down his face. "It's not grief, but it's the regret that he left like that."

Paquet said his brother died in his home after flames spread quickly to the building from the nearby, oil-soaked lake.

Gagne recalls seeing those same fireballs from his home about a half-kilometre from the Musi-Cafe, even with his spotty memory of the actual disaster.

He remembers the intense heat, the orange glow of the night sky and a wall of fire he estimates was more than 100 metres high.

He can also recall the people running through the streets screaming in terror, including one of his waitresses who managed to escape the burning bar.

"It was a year to forget," said Gagne, who had a tough time remaining patient with his family after the birth of his third child last fall.

"There have been good moments, but difficult moments as well. A child takes patience, something I no longer have."

He's reconstructing the Musi-Cafe only metres from its former location, across the tracks that cut through Lac-Megantic. He hopes the new bar, which will once again serve a wide selection of microbrews and host concerts, will be ready to open its doors by September.

Gagne, who is increasingly optimistic about the future of the town, said locals encouraged him to rebuild as a way to help restore a key gathering point for Lac-Megantic.

"I think that anything is possible. We must act softly and intelligently."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

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