The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Lac-Megantic mayor Roy Laroche opens up about personal impact of rail disaster

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Mayor Colette Roy Laroche put on a brave face for the world as she took charge after a deadly railway disaster struck her town, killing 47 people. Few knew she was mourning her own relatives, who were among the dead.

One year after the runaway train destroyed part of Lac-Megantic, Que., the local leader is opening up about her family's losses in the catastrophe that killed two of her cousins and could have claimed the life of her son.

Roy Laroche, who became a household name in Quebec for her poise in the aftermath of the July 6 derailment, has rarely spoken in public about the tragedy's impact on her personal life.

She spoke to The Canadian Press in a recent interview ahead of the first anniversary of a crash that saw a train loaded with volatile crude oil smash into downtown Lac-Megantic and explode.

Over the past year, Roy Laroche said she constantly thought about her cousins Jean-Pierre Roy, 56, and Eliane Parenteau, 93, as well as the other victims, even as her long days as mayor consumed much of her life.

"Just passing by the damage every day — several times per day — reminds us," said Roy Laroche, mayor since 2002.

"But despite this, we must continue to move forward. If we let our emotions take over, I think I would just stay at home."

Roy Laroche was nearing the end of her term last summer and wasn't planning to run again in the fall election. After the tragedy, her mandate was extended for two more years by the provincial government.

Managing her own grief has become an additional demand of the job for Roy Laroche as she tries to help rebuild the community of nearly 6,000 people, which saw much of its downtown core wiped out.

That emotional balancing act started right after the first explosion.

With sky-high flames devouring her town, she took on her unprecedented mayoral duties that night despite the dread her loved ones could be caught in the inferno.

For hours, Roy Laroche said she feared her son, Frederic Laroche, was among the dozens missing in the early-morning catastrophe.

After the first blast, she drove as close to the fire as she could.

"I said to myself, 'I hope Frederic isn't there,' " said Roy Laroche, who discovered the next morning that he was safe at home.

She believes that outcome was thanks, in part, to the fact she was unavailable to babysit for him.

Otherwise, she said he would have likely been at the popular Musi-Cafe bar, where more than two dozen people died when the pub was incinerated.

Roy Laroche was close to tears as she recalled the story.

"Grandma had visitors, so grandma could not babysit. That's why he stayed home," she said in an interview inside Lac-Megantic's sports complex, where the community will hold concerts this weekend as part of events to mark the first anniversary.

"But this is my story and it's one story among many others like it. Why wasn't he there? Why were those who were there, there?

"These are questions we can ask, but we'll never have an answer."

That night, she also thought of Parenteau, who lived downtown and had limited mobility.

The mayor said her cousin, the first victim publicly identified by authorities, had expressed a desire to die at home.

"In the end, it was a tragic death, but at the same time it corresponded with what she had wanted at the end of her life," said Roy Laroche, who often bumps into people who make her think of Roy and Parenteau.

When the tears do come, they usually flow without warning, added Roy Laroche, who earned the nickname the "Granite Lady" for her calming demeanour and composure during the crisis.

"I think I control my emotions quite well, but at the same time I don't have control of the moment when it pours out," she said.

Sometimes she cries because of a situation or a reminder. On other occasions, all it takes is a single word.

"We are always in front of this reality, the losses for families, whether it's because I cross paths with them often in a week, whether it's because there's a file that reminds us of it," Roy Laroche said.

"This is a small place . . . . We can't forget."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

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