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After the fireballs, death and dread fill Quebec village

Jennette Chaput spoke with Quebec provincial police on Tuesday about when she would be allowed back in her home. Her son Luc Therrien is at right.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Jennette Chaput spoke with Quebec provincial police on Tuesday about when she would be allowed back in her home. Her son Luc Therrien is at right.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Five days later, the downtown here is still a no man’s land, a charred, contaminated place where police and firefighters struggle to empty flooded basements and sift through piles of ash for body parts of 50 missing friends and family.

The runaway train that jumped the tracks here early Saturday, and the billowing explosions of crude oil that followed, have stunned and transformed the 6,000 residents of this village.

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“We take it one day at a time — or half a day or every hour — but sometimes it’s too much,” said Guy Boulet, 54, whose sister is among the missing. Twenty others have been confirmed dead.

Barred from a half-square-mile where they had shopped and walked and passed the time, many residents now gather behind police tape for hours at a time, staring blankly toward a downtown where fireballs from 72 tanker cars, without warning, turned an ordinary summer night into a terror-filled day.

“A lot of my friends are dead,” said Gilles Fluet, as he stood motionless Wednesday near a cordon of police who blocked access to downtown.

‘It’s more than awful. It’s incredible how we feel.’

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The mushroom-shaped plumes of oil-fueled flame are estimated to have reached 1,000 feet into the sky, visible for many miles from this lakeside village about 10 miles from the Maine border.

When the explosions began, recalled Marc Chaput, 46, “I ran up the street with my daughter and could feel the fire on my back.”

The short-term legacy of those flames could keep many residents from their homes for weeks. But the long-term effects, particularly the emotional ones, are difficult to gauge for the town, where the economy turns on wood products and tourism.

“We just want to go home and retake our lives,” said Luc Chaput, 47, Marc’s brother and a former firefighter who helped battle the flames. Chaput, his brother and niece, and his mother are staying with friends until they are allowed back in the house they shared.

Most people here appear to know someone who died or is missing. As Boulet said, the tough times are only beginning as shock is replaced by the reality of the unthinkable.

“It’s more than awful. It’s incredible how we feel,” said Boulet, whose missing sister, Marie-France Boulet, owned a negligee shop beside the tracks where the derailment occurred.

The Boulet family of 11 siblings — now, 10 — knows she is gone.

“The day after, we wait and wait and wait for her call — to hear her say, ‘I’m safe. I’m in a safe place’ — but we never had any news,” Boulet said. “The day after, we have adrenaline. But now, the adrenaline leaves.”

Boulet, who owns a family- run furniture and appliance store, fought back tears Wednesday as siblings visited one by one to comfort him and each other.

“What’s next?” asked Martine Boulet-Pelletier, 10th of the 11 siblings, who arrived from Saskatchewan only days before the explosion for her annual summer stay in Lac-Megantic.

Boulet’s daughter, Caroline, said she believes the town will regroup. “All together, we will pass through this,” she said.

But questions of liability persist, and the board chairman of the corporation that owns the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose train derailed, was jeered Wednesday at a public appearance in Lac-Megantic.

Edward Burkhardt, board chairman of the railroad’s parent company, said the train’s engineer appears to have failed to set the hand brakes properly. “I think he did something wrong,” said Burkhardt, president of the Rail World Inc. board.

The engineer, the only crew member on a train of five locomotives and 73 cars, left the train parked about seven miles outside Lac-Megantic while he spent the night in a hotel. That procedure is routine, railway officials said, while employees take required rest and wait for replacements.

But later, sometime after a small fire was extinguished on one of the locomotives by local firefighters, the train began rolling downhill. By the time the train approached the village, unattended, the oil-filled tankers were traveling at 50 miles per hour, police said.

The timing of the derailment, in the dead of night, could not have been worse for dozens of patrons crowded into Le Musi-Cafe, the most popular nightclub in town and where most of the missing are believed to have been.

The region’s two favorite bands had been playing, and Jean-Pierre Roy, 52, deflected a suggestion to leave, ordering another beer with the woman he’d taken on a first date.

Guy Ouellet’s girlfriend, Diane Bizier, likewise decided to stay late. Marie-France Boulet was snug in her apartment across the street, just behind her negligee shop.

The tanker cars derailed outside, between the nightclub and the negligee shop, and neither Roy, nor Bizier, nor Boulet — nor any of their remains — has been found as gasoline, oil-fouled water, and strength-sapping heat complicate the investigation and recovery.

Downtown basements remain filled with up to seven feet of water, much of it contaminated with oil or sewage, police said. These toxic spaces will need to be drained in a slow, painstaking process that will prolong the search for remains. Some police and firefighters have become ill during the work.

“It’s something you don’t expect to see, and when you do, you hope it will be the last one,” said Lieutenant Michel Brunet of the provincial police.

The irony of the tragedy, Guy Boulet said, is that Lac-Megantic owes its development to the railroad, which has six crossings in town.

“The city was built around the railroad, more than 100 years ago,” Boulet said. “When you hear the whistle, you know that someone is working, and that it’s good for the economy.”

Recently, he said, he noticed a different cargo on the trains.

“When I saw the tankers, I was worried,” Boulet said. “I said, my God, it’s really dangerous.”

Assigning blame will take time, as police gather evidence to present to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.

In the meantime, as the village of Lac-Megantic adjusts to catastrophe in its midst, other concerns take soul-searing precedence.

“I am a little bit angry about this, yes,” said Ouelett, whose girlfriend most likely perished at Le Musi-café. “But mostly, now, it is about the grieving.”

Brian MacQuarrie
can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

Because of a photographer’s error, a caption with this story originally misidentified a mother and son. Jennette Therrien and Luc Chaput were inquiring about when she could get back into her home.

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