One year later, Lac-Megantic families struggle to carry on 0
It's been a year since Lac-Megantic, Que., burned while the world watched.
A crude-oil train was supposed to have been parked for the night, 12 km down the tracks from the Quebec border town, but instead began rolling towards the community just before 1 a.m. last July 6.
As in many places across Canada, the freight tracks run right through the centre of town.
Locals in Lac-Megantic were accustomed to seeing the night trains come through at low speed, so patrons at the packed Musi-Cafe bar, metres from the tracks, knew something was wrong when the locomotive and 72 cars barrelled towards them at highway velocity.
The train rolled off the tracks, crushing the bar and nearby homes before exploding into bright orange fireballs.
Anyone in the area who wasn't immediately crushed to death or incinerated was singed by superheated air as the aging, mislabelled tanker cars exploded, one at a time.
The tourist town resembled a war zone by sunrise. In all, 47 people had been killed in Canada's deadliest railway explosion.
Some families lost more than one member — extended heartache for those left behind.
Here are four stories of children who lost their mothers in the blast.
'I'm no longer at rock bottom': Estel Blanchet
Natachat Gaudreau used to cook all the time for her 17-year-old daughter Estel Blanchet. Estel says her heart now breaks whenever she sees kids eating homemade food at school.
The death her mom plunged Estel into what felt like a bottomless pit of despair.
In the weeks following the deadly explosion, Estel made a promise not to let her sadness interfere with her studies. Natachat was a single mom who raised her and her brother and was proud of Estel's education.
With a heavy heart, Estel left Lac-Megantic, Que., and went to college in thew province's Beauce region. From the start she noticed that the parents of many students "took a lot of care of them," doing simple things like bringing them food.
"Seeing people eat food that their mom made was very difficult," she said. "It made me really miss my mom."
Estel Blanchet, pictured, lost her mother Natachat Gaudreau in the Lac-Megantic disaster. (Sarah Belisle/QMI Agency)
Even tougher was seeing the notes from "mom" that would accompany the thoughtful packages.
Despite her promise to herself, Estel struggled at college. She took difficult science classes, which required a lot of studying.
"I was too sad and my head was not in it," she said.
Her grades were not good, which discouraged her even more. Estel quit school, but swore she would return.
Natachat Gaudreau was at the Musi-Cafe listening to music when the train exploded. The majority of the people who died in the explosions that night were there.
"(The explosions) made me grow up a lot faster than I ever expected," Estel told QMI Agency. "I really wasn't ready."
In January, she returned to college, got herself into a routine and found her spirits improving — along with her grades.
"I think of my mom every day," she said, "but I don't spend my days sobbing. I'm no longer at rock bottom."
Hockey and family saved Tristan Lecours
In the year since Tristan Lecours lost his mom Marie-Noelle Faucher in the tragedy at Lac-Megantic, Que., he has gone through a range of emotions.
The only time the 16-year-old said he feels at peace now is when he's playing hockey.
Marie-Noelle Faucher was at the Musi-Cafe the night the runaway train exploded. The morning after, when Lecours heard that his mom didn't come home, he was inconsolable and furious.
"I wondered, why me?" Lecours said. "I already only had a mom, why couldn't this happen to someone else?"
His father, who died six months before the explosion, had never played a role in his life.
Lecours very quickly immersed himself into the one thing that would help him forget -- hours playing hockey for his Lac-Megantic team.
Tristan Lecours, centre, is pictured with his aunt, Maude Faucher, left, and grandmother, Germaine Faucher. (Sarah Belisle/QMI Agency)
The team won its league championship this season. Lecours said was because "my teammates wanted to win it for me."
A few weeks after his mom's death, Lecours returned to school, going into Grade 10. He said it was an anxious time, but his friends and teachers were there to support him.
Lecours had to adjust to a new family dynamic. He moved about 20 km away to a home with his aunt and uncle and their three kids.
"We were always a close family," Lecours said.
Lecours' aunt, Maude Faucher, told QMI Agency that the past year has been "one of adapting.
"Adapting to a new life that will never be the same without my sister, adapting to having a new son ... and a new reality."
In April, Lecours celebrated his 16th birthday, his first without his mom. He said he was focused on the provincial hockey championships, which were underway at the time.
"I didn't let myself cry in front of people," Lecours said.
Sad birthdays for young Nathan and Loic
Months before his birthday, Nathan Proteau's mom bought him the iPod he wanted when he turned nine years old. Sadly, she wasn't around to give it to him in August.
It was Nathan's grandparents who gave him the iPod, one month after his mother Karine Champagne was killed in the Lac-Megantic, Que., explosion.
There were no smiles at the birthday celebration.
"There was such sadness in his eyes," said Danielle Champagne, the boy's grandmother.
"Now, he has his iPod and he plays with it a lot. He knows it was the last present he'll ever get from his mom."
Karine Champagne, centre, is pictured in a photo with her sons Nathan and Loic Proteau. (Sarah Belisle/QMI Agency)
The last year has been a difficult one for Nathan and his older brother Loic, 11. There were perhaps no more difficult days than their late mom's birthday, when they visited her grave to place flowers and balloons.
"Tears were shed. We cried a lake of tears that day," Champagne said.
Since the explosion, the boys have been staying with their dad, who separated from their mom a few years ago. They also spend a lot of time with their late mom's parents. In fact, they each have a bedroom at their grandparents' house.
On Mother's Day, Champagne and her grandkids decided to celebrate Karine, and Karine only. Danielle made lunch, including a chocolate tart Karine loved so much.
They had a picnic at the cemetery and placed Karine's urn nearby so that she could be with them.
"We had a lovely day. We told stories, and even laughed," Champagne said.
The grandparents said they make a point of talking to the kids about Karine as much as possible. They say they will continue to remind the boys where they came from. "If they do something that reminds us of Karine," Champagne said, "we'll tell them, Mom used to be exactly like that!"
Little Millianna is taken care of
The walls are painted the same colours and adorned with the same decorations. On the bed, there are even the same teddy bears. Millianna's grandparents have recreated her old bedroom, which was destroyed in the explosions at Lac-Megantic, Que.
"It's important that she feels at home," grandmother Solange Belanger said.
Now, 2 1/2, Millianna was just a year old when both her parents were killed in the Lac-Megantic disaster. For most of the last year, she has bounced back and forth between the families of her late mother and father. She now lives full time with her dad's mom, Belanger, and her partner Claude Chouinard.
The grandparents said the first couple of months were hard on the girl. She would wake up crying in the middle of the night, looking for her mom and dad.
Millianna, centre, lives with her grandparents Solange Belanger and Claude Chouinard. Millianna’s parents were killed in the Lac-Megantic disaster. (Valerie Gonthier/QMI Agency)
Belanger and Chouinard have done all they can to give Millianna a normal life. She still attends the same daycare and still plays with the same friends.
Millianna still has trouble sleeping. "She spends most nights in our room, sleeping between the two of us."
The presence of Millianna in their lives has helped to dull the pain of the tragedy that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic.
"We cried so much," she said, "But because of the little one, we had to make sure that life goes on."
It almost didn't for Millianna. Her grandparent's picked her up for a sleepover just hours before the explosions. Belanger and Chouinard invited Millianna's parents as well, but they wanted to have a romantic evening to themselves.
The couple, both in their 50s, say that their greatest wish is to stay healthy long enough to watch her grow up. She may have lost a son, but Belanger gained a daughter.
Do you think Lac-Megantic will ever fully recover from the 'train from hell'?
Only time will tell