LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – Within hours of reopening his snack bar in downtown Lac-Megantic, Que., Eric Bilodeau was slinging poutine and hamburgers for regulars who lingered at the counter and in their seats.
His unassuming restaurant, Patate chez Loulou, is just blocks from where a runaway train derailed and exploded last weekend, razing dozens of homes and businesses and claiming at least 15 lives.
The devastating blast that forced hundreds from their homes also shuttered the popular neighbourhood haunt for four days, a first since Bilodeau took ownership in 2004, he said. It normally dishes out comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.
As some 1,200 residents were allowed back into their homes Tuesday, Quebec provincial police also gave Bilodeau the green light to return to the restaurant – and his customers.
It took Bilodeau, his sister and a handful of devoted employees less than two hours to clear out rotting food from the fridges and get ready for lunch service.
The tantalizing smell of fried food quickly wafted down the street toward where journalists and officials gathered for multiple daily news conferences.
But though many familiar faces soon appeared, many were noticeably absent, Bilodeau said.
“I have many good customers who died (in the explosion),” he said.
“We have to get used to the idea, it’s obvious,” he added.
Police have said they continue to search for at least 35 people still missing since the disaster, but they have not released the names of those confirmed dead.
Still, for some of those grappling with grief and uncertainty, returning to something resembling routine has been a relief.
“For us, it gets our mind off it, we don’t have time to think about it, because we’ve been living this drama for four days and it’s not good for morale,” Bilodeau said Tuesday.
“At least when we’re working, it gets our mind off it. At the same time, we talk about it and it makes us feel better.”
Others may have to wait longer for respite. As of Tuesday night, some 800 residents were still displaced, forced to stay with loved ones or at a local high school doubling as a shelter.
And frustration appears to be mounting for some of them, including a man who tried to march into the security zone blocked by police in order to make his way home.
His attempt caused a minor commotion during a news conference Tuesday and prompted officials to call on residents to be patient.
Police followed their appeal with a warning that anyone who compromised the area they consider a crime scene could be charged with obstructing justice.
Authorities wouldn’t give a timeline for when the outstanding evacuation orders would be lifted, citing the ongoing police investigation.
But they insisted their priority is to restore some sense of normalcy to the emotionally battered town.
– With files from Melanie Marquis.
© The Canadian Press, 2013