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Lac-Megantic: 28 confirmed dead in what may be worst train disaster in Canadian history

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – Four more bodies have been found in Lac-Megantic, Que., where 50 people are feared to have been killed.

The total number of bodies found is 28.

Seven more of the victims have been identified, bringing the number of identified victims to eight.

The Quebec coroner’s office says the names of those people will be released after families have been notified.

A first victim was named by police yesterday – 93-year-old Eliane Parenteau

Also today, the federal Transportation Safety Board shared details of its upcoming investigation into what it describes as possibly the worst train disaster in Canadian history.

TSB chair Wendy Tadros says the investigation into the Lac-Megantic tragedy will take many months – and perhaps longer.

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She says 20 people are collecting evidence on-site, and 10 more people are working on the case in Ottawa.

“This may will be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history,” she told a news conference Friday in the town, where she offered her condolences to residents.

READ MORE: Conservative transport chair calls rail safety meetings ‘premature’ 

“This will be an incredibly complex investigation.

“It will take months – or more.”

Investigators plan to produce a 3D model through laser scanning of images currently being collected at the site of the accident, where 50 are feared to have died.

She says investigators will consider the slope of the track; the weight of the train; and the safety practices of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

“In the end we will tell Canadians what happened, why it happened, and what needs to do be done to ensure it will never happen again,” Tadros said.

READ MORE: ‘There is no hope,’ investigator tells mother of 28-year-old feared dead in Lac-Megantic

Families of the victims of the train derailment fire leave the church after seeing the crash site for the first time Thursday, July 11, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

READ MORE: Lac-Megantic mayor lashes out at railway exec

“But today we are a long way from there.”

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The TSB will also publish statistics online, starting soon, on the safety records from different rail companies because of public demand.

It says it will also immediately share information publicly if, over the course of its investigation, it learns anything that compromises public safety.

It says there will be no train traffic in the area as long as investigations are underway – then what happens afterward is up to the federal Transport department.

The Quebec government has also left open the possibility of a public inquiry.

Meanwhile, the town has begun the formal grieving process.

WATCH: Life must go on in Lac-Megantic but residents are preparing for grief

The local church opened Friday morning for anyone wanting to pray, lay flowers or otherwise reflect on the tragedy.

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By mid-morning, about a dozen people gathered in the church just a few blocks from the site of last week’s deadly derailment. Some paused at the top of the steps to peer down at the crumbled downtown just visible beyond a heavy construction fence.

Though the building was spared any noticeable damage, it was shuttered for days while police combed the area for signs of the missing and other evidence.

Gaetane Labonte, who lives in the nearby community of Stratford, headed inside to pray for the victims and the families left to grapple with the loss.

“I’m sure people need this – to reflect together, try to comfort each other, try to find something to live for,” she said.

Labonte knew two people who were at the Musi-Cafe when it was destroyed by balls of flame. Only one of them survived, she said.

The other, Natacha Gaudreau, once worked as a hairdresser in Stratford, Labonte said. The man who survived told her Gaudreau mistook the crash for an earthquake and instinctively moved closer to the wall.

About 50 people in the town about 250 kilometres east of Montreal are feared dead after a train carrying crude oil came off the tracks and exploded last Saturday.

A candlelight vigil scheduled for Friday night was cancelled after provincial police said they wouldn’t have the resources to oversee a potentially large crowd.

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It was unclear whether the cancellation would have an impact on similar events that were planned in Montreal and other Quebec municipalities.
Most Lac-Megantic residents are allowed to return home, and only about 10 per cent of the 2,000 who were evacuated will still be shut out of their houses as of the weekend.

As for families that have lost loved ones, a team of more than 30 counsellors have arrived in town to help residents in community centres, fire stations and even public parks.

One grief counsellor has said many families will struggle to move past the denial stage of loss because they won’t have a body to bury.
And as the initial shock wears off, many in the community could find themselves dealing with post-traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt, Richard Vaillancourt said.

“There are people who have gone back to work but they’re still haunted (by the trauma),” he said.

Over time, they’ll be able to process those emotions and reclaim their town and their lives, he added.

Vigils and other displays of compassion can provide much-needed support at a time when people often feel alone in their grief, he said.

Moments after leaving the church, Jean-Denis Martel’s voice trembled as he lamented the grim tally of deaths he described as “needless.”

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Talking about it is painful, he admitted, but also cathartic.

“It helps, it makes you reflect,” and think of those who lost family members and loved ones, he said.

The solemn expression of solidarity was felt even by those who stayed outside.

Jacques Mayrand, who lives in a house next to the church, says he has no words to convey his gratitude for the support shown for Lac-Megantic within the town and well beyond its borders.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a Quebecer,” he said.

That residents now have the chance to mourn collectively is “a start,” but families of those killed in the blast face a long struggle to come to terms with the trauma, he said.

Visions and sounds of the disaster are ingrained in Mayrand’s mind. He said the noise of a nearby generator reminds him of an idling locomotive.

Mayrand said he and his friends witnessed the explosion from his home. When he was finally allowed to return Thursday night, the same group stared at the rubble from the same seats.

“Like it or not, we’re reliving it all,” he said.

Survivors like cab driver Andre Turcotte say they can’t stop the horrifying images from continuously rolling through their heads.

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He was parked at a taxi stand downtown when the derailment sent railcars smashing into buildings and set off explosions.

Turcotte, who was chatting with one of his pals at the time of the crash, said the nearby apartment block where his buddy’s two young daughters and wife were sleeping was immediately swallowed by towering flames.

“He ran toward the fire shouting, ‘My girls! My girls!’ ” said Turcotte, the same cabbie who hours earlier had given the train’s driver a lift from the parked locomotive to an inn in Lac-Megantic.

Since the accident, Turcotte said he has popped sleeping pills nearly every night.

“It’s horrible what we experienced,” he said.

“I saw people close to me disappear – live.”

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