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Quebec town fighting to recover from train disaster

Many not ready to mark 2013 oil train wreck

“I’m sure the images of those final hours will come back, all those flames,” said Yannick Gagne, owner of a Lac-Megantic bar where an estimated 30 people were killed.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

“I’m sure the images of those final hours will come back, all those flames,” said Yannick Gagne, owner of a Lac-Megantic bar where an estimated 30 people were killed.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Backhoes and bulldozers are still digging out oil-seeped soil and pavement in the center of this lakeside Quebec town. Where the post office, public library, and restaurants once stood, there is only the clanging of machinery kicking up dust over the emptiness.

It is the daily soundtrack of a town fighting to rise up from one of the worst railway disasters in North American history.

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A year has passed since a runaway oil train slid quietly down a hill in the middle of the night and derailed in a series of explosions that obliterated a large swath of downtown Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Paved roads and new buildings remain a long way off in the fenced-off disaster zone. The damage to the surrounding river system hasn’t been fully made public, and the environmental cleanup alone will cost at least $200 million.

Upsetting many townspeople, oil trains could soon rumble through the town again.

‘‘It’s a challenge for us to commemorate something that doesn’t yet belong to the past,’’ said Father Steve Lemay, the parish priest at St. Agnes Church, a stone building overlooking the disaster site. ‘‘We’re still in the midst of the tragedy.’’

This weekend, the town of 6,000 people will mark the anniversary of the July 6, 2013, accident that prompted Canada and the United States to tighten regulations and phase out old tanker models. There will be special Roman Catholic Masses, a 47-minute candlelight walk, and the unveiling of a monument etched with the names of those killed.

Many townspeople aren’t ready for it.

‘I’m sure the images of those final hours will come back, all those flames.’

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‘‘I’m sure the images of those final hours will come back, all those flames,’’ said Yannick Gagne, owner of a popular bar where an estimated 30 people were killed.

Just outside the clean-up zone, Gagne is building a new bar. Musi-Cafe had been the heart of the town’s nightlife, with its two-dozen beers on tap and cozy, wood-paneled decor inside a red-brick building that Gagne had bought and renovated four years ago.

His determination to open a new bar just feet from his old one has become a symbol of hope. Yet Gagne says he struggles every day with grief and anger, haunted by thoughts of the last moments of his friends and employees. Gagne had left the bar just 45 minutes before the train slammed into it in the early hours of that Saturday.

‘‘I do that every day — think of all the people I’ve lost,’’ said Gagne, a 35-year-old father of three with a sturdy build and chin-strap beard, now known throughout Canada.

Gagne hopes the new Musi-Cafe — a more modern construction with floor-to-ceiling glass windows — will open in September at the end of a new main street, hastily built by the government. Insurance is covering some of the estimated $1.6 million cost of the bar, and a construction company, BONE Structure, has also contributed. But Gagne said funding expected from the Quebec government has not arrived, delaying the project.

Other new storefronts remain empty. Tenants like Alex Lapointe, who lost his Italian restaurant in the accident, complain that bureaucratic delays are tying up compensation payments.

In May at the town courthouse, three railway employees were charged with 47 counts each of criminal negligence, including engineer Thomas Harding, who is accused of failing to set enough brakes on the train. The men are set to appear in court in September. Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway was also charged.

Trains, which provide a crucial link for many businesses in the town’s industrial park, already began transporting nonhazardous materials last December.

John Giles, president and chief executive of Central Maine and Quebec Railway, which bought the defunct company, told The Associated Press in May he plans improve the rail lines over the next two years, with a goal of resuming oil shipments in 18 months.

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