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Church bells ring out to honour Lac-Megantic dead one week after tragedy

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Final words for loved ones lost in a horrific train crash and messages of hope for the grieving survivors found their place on brightly coloured paper hearts a week after tragedy struck a small Quebec town.

Residents and their supporters laid bare their distress and sympathy in a rainbow-hued memorial erected inside the Lac-Megantic church on Saturday as they gathered to mark the grim anniversary.

The town of roughly 6,000 has been flooded with grief since the derailment that is believed to have killed 50 people and left its town centre in ruins.

The official death toll in the tragedy rose to 33 Saturday after police said they had found five more bodies. Another 17 people are feared dead.

When the clock struck 1:14 a.m. on Saturday, it marked one week to the minute that an out-of-control caravan of rail tanker cars rumbled into town, jumped the tracks and exploded into searing balls of flame.

The Montreal, Maine

The explosion and fire triggered by the derailment incinerated much of Lac-Megantic's downtown, which was dotted with historic buildings, homes and commercial outlets.

Daily news conferences to keep residents informed of developments in the recovery, along with the barely hidden rubble, have served as constant reminders of the tragedy.

People have been clamouring for an outlet for the sorrow that has gripped them since the crash, said Louise Bergeron, a volunteer with the Ste-Agnes parish.

"We really felt that need," she said in unveiling the memorial.

"People can come here and, for a moment, unload their suffering," she said.

Some left poignantly personal tributes to friends and relatives whose lives were suddenly cut short.

A well-worn Asics running shoe with a bright pink stripe held a photo of a grinning blond and a note that read, in French: "I'm happy they found you but unhappy that you left us so soon."

A few metres away, a framed portrait of a young woman dressed in a dark blue ballgown as she looked over her shoulder was simply labelled, "Elodie Turcotte, 18 years."

A bouquet of white roses and white and pink lilies was addressed to Keven Roy, from his grandmother Carmen.

Notes bearing support for the grieving community were plastered on a wall near the altar, many of them printed in a child's scribble. A pile of blank hearts sat on two card tables for those wishing to add their own words of comfort.

Bergeron said the memorial has attracted travellers from Trois-Rivieres and Drummondville, both roughly 200 kilometres away.

"It's pretty extraordinary, the support we're getting," she said.

Many visitors stopped by the church at noon to hear the bells chime 50 times in memory of the victims. The chimes were followed by a minute of silence.

A solemn crowd filled the steps of the church while others stood watch from the sidewalk.

Many clutched each other's hands and leaned on their loved ones for support. Sobs could be heard between the chimes and several people wiped away tears. Young boys bowed their heads and held baseball caps to their chests.

As the last peals faded, a man released several white doves into the sky. The birds flew toward the battered town centre and disappeared from view.

"We had to come," said Jeanette Fortier, a Maine native who now lives near Sherbrooke.

She and her husband made the hour-long trek to take part in the tribute and witness with their own eyes the devastation that nearly claimed one of their own.

Her husband's nephew, Mirko Couture, owned a restaurant that was reduced to rubble that fateful night. Had he not closed up early, he would likely have been among those being remembered Saturday, she said.

Anyone who has lost a loved one shares the community's pain on some level, Fortier said.

"I think a lot of people in Quebec are feeling the same way as I am," she added.

A couple of hundred metres away, crews continued their grim search Saturday for human remains. They sifted through the ash and debris of what was once the bustling core of Lac-Megantic.

A police spokesman said officers and firefighters who combed through the disaster zone faced difficult conditions due to the hot, humid weather and the toxic vapors that emanated from the crude-oil-soaked ground.

The human element of the job has also been taxing for searchers, he said. The workers stopped their hunt at noon to pay their respects as the church bells pealed nearby.

"It was a very intense moment, it was a very emotional moment," provincial police spokesman Michel Forget said of the minute of silence inside the perimeter.

"Police officers are actually mothers (and) fathers before they're police officers."

He predicts that the "absolutely awful" conditions will prolong the search for weeks.

The massive criminal probe, meanwhile, is still underway.

Forget was asked why the chairman of the railway company at the centre of the investigations was not issued a permit to visit the area that was wiped out by his runaway train.

During a brief stop in town last week, Ed Burkhardt of MMA said he had hoped to visit the site, but that he was denied access.

Forget gave a short explanation for the denial: "Because he had no business there."

Lac-Megantic's mayor was also asked about Burkhardt on Saturday. She fielded a question on why their scheduled meeting last week was cancelled.

Colette Roy-Laroche said that MMA called off the get-together without reason, about 30 minutes before they were supposed to meet.

"I was counting on this meeting to give him my message," said Roy-Laroche, who then referred to the municipality's now-rocky relationship with the railway.

"We'll see, with the municipal council, ... how to deal with this situation."

Burkhardt was heckled by angry residents who said he took too long to visit their town after the crash.

The stretch of railroad tracks through downtown Lac-Megantic will be closed indefinitely. Roy-Laroche said Saturday that she asked the provincial transport minister to help the municipality ensure trains will eventually stop running through the heart of town, for good.

"We expressed our wish to him that the railroad be diverted to the industrial park," said Roy-Laroche, who declined to share Sylvain Gaudreault's response to the request.

"This question has been put on the table."

Police identified seven more victims on Saturday, mostly in their 20s and early 30s. They included: Frédéric Boutin, 19; Kathy Clusiault, 24; Élodie Turcotte, 18; Yannick Bouchard, 36; Karine Lafontaine, 35; Maxime Dubois, 27; Mélissa Roy, 29. An eighth victim, 93-year-old Eliane Parenteau, was identified on Thursday and police were to identify a ninth person on Monday.

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