LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - A week after the heart of the Quebec village of Lac-Megantic was devastated in a fireball in one of the worst train accidents in Canadian history, the St. Agnes church bell rang 50 times on Saturday, once for each person believed to have died.
Eight seconds intervened between each bell, then a minute of silence, after which 12 white doves were released from the steps of the 92-year-old church in an emotional midday ceremony.
A group of mourners held hands to form a long human chain, couples embraced and many cried quietly, all heads down.
“It’s complete desolation for all. Church is where we come to find peace. There are no words to describe this region’s suffering,” said Genevieve, a woman from nearby St-Romain who knew three of the dead and did not want to give her full name.
The runaway train of 72 cars carrying crude oil had been parked uphill in the nearby town of Nantes. It started moving toward Lac-Megantic when its brakes failed, building speed and eventually jumping the tracks in the heart of town near the packed Musi-Cafe bar, shortly after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) last Saturday.
The accident is likely to spur changes in Canadian railway regulations. It has already launched a debate about the merits of sending crude by rail, which is increasingly being used because of capacity limits on pipelines and political opposition to them despite their better safety record.
Police said on Saturday that 33 bodies had now been recovered, up from 28 - although they have only been able to identify nine of them so far. They are searching for the bodies of the estimated 17 missing.
The St. Agnes church has been opened up to let people leave mementoes, photos and flowers.
People were given heart-shaped pieces of paper on which to leave a message at the shrine at the altar of the church in Lac-Megantic. One read: “You are strong and united. You will find it in you to forgive.”
Real Lemoine, 70, a retired electrician whose wife lost her niece, remarked: “We are all Catholics here. We need to pay our respects.”
On Friday night, Dominique Bordeleau, a high school teacher attending a candlelight vigil, said she recognized two of her former students among the photos placed at the shrine.
“It really sinks in what happened when you see these pictures. It reaches deep into you. It’s devastating,” she said.
Candlelight vigils were also held on Friday night in Montreal and other cities and villages across the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec.
Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she would ask the Quebec government to postpone for two years the municipal elections scheduled for November, so that the council could sit during what would have been the campaign and devote its attention to reconstruction.
As the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the Quebec provincial police try to piece together what caused the accident, they have focused on whether enough hand brakes had been set. The train’s air brakes had failed when a locomotive was shut down after a small fire broke out in its engines, but the hand brakes should have held the train in place.
Much of the town’s anger has been directed at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, or MMA, and its chairman, Edward Burkhardt, who has apologized and acknowledged corporate liability.
Burkhardt said the engineer who parked the train, Tom Harding, had told the company he had set hand brakes on 11 tank cars. But Burkhardt said MMA’s general feeling was that it was not true.
Harding has remained out of sight and Reuters could not reach him for comment. Some residents said he was just the scapegoat, and they blamed MMA for the catastrophe.
Provincial police said the current heat wave was complicating search efforts. The workers are using respirators despite the heat.
On Friday, police spoke of using ventilation in the search area for quicker dispersal of dangerous fumes emanating from the oil. But that idea was quickly dropped because the movement of air was deemed a fire hazard.
“The conditions are absolutely awful,” police inspector Michel Forget told reporters.
Writing by Randall Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen and Peter Cooney