LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Thousands of residents of a small town in eastern Canada attended a vigil just after midnight this morning. They were honoring victims of one of North America's deadliest train accidents. One year ago, an American-owned tanker train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic and erupted into flames. Forty-seven people died when the fire incinerated the community's downtown. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann is in Lac-Megantic, located - which is located just an hour from the border with Main. He sends us this report on the day of mourning.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: On July 6 of last year, early in the morning, a train with 72 tanker cars rolled free from a hillside, where it had been parked above the small town of Lac-Megantic. The train rolled faster and faster until it hit a bend in the track in the heart of the village. Just after 1 a.m., a local man shooting video with this smartphone captured the boiling clouds of flames the tankers erupted, one by one.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken). Oh, my God.
MANN: One year later, St. Agnes Church sits just above a rubble field that stills cuts the town in half. From the steps you can see the historic downtown in the distance, still too contaminated with oil residue and heavy metals to reoccupy. Just after midnight this morning, the sound of a lone violin echoes from the church.
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MANN: At a midnight mass described as a ceremony of comfort, Lac-Megantic's mayor, Colette Roy Laroche, speaks first.
MAYOR COLETTE ROY LAROCHE: (French spoken).
MANN: Roy Laroche says her town now has to turn a page in its history - not to forget, she says, but to find a new vision for the future.
GUY BOULET: It's not really easy. As you know, I lost one sister during this tragedy. So especially during the week, we think a lot to her.
MANN: Guy Boulet owns a furniture store just across from the church and has been a member of the congregation all his life. His sister Marie-France vanished in the firestorm. Her remains were never found. Like a lot of people here, he is deeply wounded and angry. Three low-level workers for the American-owned Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railroad were charged by Canadian authorities in May with criminal negligence for their role in the accident. That case is still pending. But like a lot of people here, Boulet says top executives in the company and government regulators should also be held responsible. Boulet also wants tougher rail tanker rules in the U.S. and Canada so that this kind of disaster doesn't happen again. But he says this ceremony, this night's commemoration, is a comfort - a necessary step toward normalcy.
BOULET: We are certain it will help, especially because, you know, we don't want anyone to forget this moment. And with a ceremony like this, everyone will remember, I hope forever.
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MANN: Through this long, painful year, St. Agnes Church has become a pivotal place for Lac-Megantic.
STEVE LEMAY: (French spoken).
MANN: At the exact time that explosions began to rip through nearby streets a year ago, Father Steve Lemay, the local priest, calls for a minute of silence. Then he leads the townspeople, thousands of them, carrying lamps and candles, out along a ceremonial boardwalk along the edge of the dark rubble field. People pass one by one and in small groups and families through a wooden arch set with 47 wind chimes, one for each of Lac-Megantic's dead.
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MANN: For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.