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Scars remain as Lac-Megantic honours victims one year after train disaster

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The people of Lac-Megantic gathered on Saturday to honour neighbours and loved ones killed in last year's devastating train derailment.

But even though a year has passed since the July 6 disaster, the emotional scars still run deep in the Quebec town, just like the physical damage apparent on the local landscape.

This weekend, townsfolk are paying homage to the 47 people who died when a runaway train hauling crude oil crashed and exploded — turning their downtown core into an inferno.

The centre of the community remains off-limits behind metal fences, in a zone where work crews continue decontamination efforts and a giant crater has replaced buildings destroyed in the disaster.

"One year has already passed since this terrible tragedy," Mayor Colette Roy Laroche told more than 100 citizens who attended a ceremony Saturday to release 5,000 young trout into the lake that shares the town's name.

The event symbolized the resilience and recovery of the lake, which was contaminated with crude oil that spewed from the smashed rail cars.

"For all of us, life has changed, it will never be the same," Roy Laroche said. "The heart of our little peaceful town was truly, literally wounded."

Children laughed as they helped wild life officials scoop fish out of nets and slip them into the lake.

But as the collective healing process moves forward, many in town say that terrible emotional wounds have yet to heal for some.

The pain remains so raw in this community that many people said they planned to avoid the anniversary ceremonies, which include church services, concerts, social events and a 47-minute candlelight walk.

The commemorations will be highlighted Sunday by a Roman Catholic mass at the local church.

Louisette Nadeau, who attended a flower-planting ceremony near the railroad Saturday, doubts her daughter, who narrowly escaped the explosions, will 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 after the derailment, when the train exploded.

She said the first blast knocked Nathalie off her feet and the intense heat of the fireball inflicted second-degree burns on her 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 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 460 butterflies at another event near the crash site.

Children giggled as some butterflies refused to immediately leave their fingertips. The moment brought smiles to hundreds of faces.

A midnight mass followed by the candlelight march were to complete Saturday's activities.

On Sunday, dignitaries including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard will join families and locals for a commemorative mass followed by the unveiling of a monument and a procession.

The monument, on the front lawn of the Ste-Agnes Church, will be dedicated to the victims.

Luc Cyr, the archbishop of Sherbrooke, said the region's parishes have been asked to observe a moment of silence for Lac-Megantic.

"The people in Lac-Megantic are not alone," he said. "We are there and we will be for a long time."

Linda Gendreau, a Lac-Megantic resident who watched as children helped release trout into the lake Saturday, said the community has yet to break free 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 in the disaster and several acquaintances.

"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 Nelson Wyatt in Montreal

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