An overflow crowd attended a memorial service today at a church in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic for the 47 people who were killed there when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded.
About 1000 people packed Ste-Agnes Church for the morning Mass presided over by Luc Cyr, the archbishop of Sherbrooke. Among the dignitaries attending were Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and the town's mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche.
"This has been an emotional day followed by a very emotional period," Harper said outside of the church. "It is very difficult to absorb all this when you see all of these families who have been affected."
The town is near the US border, and Maine Governor Paul LePage, who is of French-Canadian descent, was on hand to offer his condolences.
Parish priest Steve Lemay said in his homily that the town has suffered through "unbelievable events that caused us inexpressible suffering."
"Our town, its heart devastated, is mourning its children. Children who were unique because of a color and vitality they brought to their families."
The service was held three weeks after a runaway train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil hurtled down an incline, derailed and slammed into downtown Lac-Megantic. Several train cars exploded and fireballs rained down on the town, destroying 40 buildings in the picturesque lakeside town of 6000. The unattended Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train had been parked overnight on a rail line before it came loose.
Father Lemay said he found inspiration in the courage of crews at the disaster site; the volunteers in the parish; the schools transformed into shelters; and the legions of dedicated public workers.
"Nobody here or anywhere, can bring back the dead and give them back to those who love them as Jesus did," Lemay said. "However ... we can all help life triumph. On our own path, we each experience these little victories over evil - little victories over suffering."
A large crowd gathered outside the church as the solemn procession began, applauding a group of firefighters as they arrived for the Mass.
The service began with a grandmother from the town reading out the names of all the victims from a large card.
"You know grandmothers - they like to tell their grandchildren stories," said Pierrette Turgeon Blanchet, before she began reading. "But today I'd like to tell God a story."
Many people outside the church wiped tears from their eyes as the names of the victims were read out.
Sophie L'Heureux, the manager of Musi-Cafe bar, lost many friends and co-workers after fireballs consumed the popular local watering hole moments after the crash.
She watched the ceremony on a big screen on the street outside the church.
"It's an important step in the mourning process," she said of the service's impact on the town. "The whole population of Lac-Megantic is still really in a state of shock, even after three weeks. It will stay engraved on our hearts and on our memories for a long time."
The July 6 tragedy has triggered lawsuits in Canada and the US, a police criminal investigation and a probe by federal transportation safety officials.
Quebec and the federal government have each promised CA$60 million (US$58 million) for emergency assistance and longer-term reconstruction help for the town.
Ottawa has also revamped some rules on train transport, following the advice of the federal Transportation Safety Board. Canadian transportation authorities banned one-man crews for trains carrying dangerous cargo, and also said such trains will not be allowed to be left unattended on a main track.
Only one person was assigned to the nearly mile-long train carrying 72 tankers filled with crude oil from North Dakota destined for a refinery in New Brunswick.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board said there was insufficient brake force to hold the train, which began rolling after being parked overnight on a rail line. A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway executive blamed the train's operator for failing to set enough hand brakes.