The runaway train stirred special sorrow for Daniel Poulin. The sister of his childhood baby sitter is gone. So is a golf buddy.
They are among the dozens of missing souls believed to have perished in a fiery derailment that tore a hole in the heart of this Canadian town on a languid Saturday morning just a week ago. The world shuddered as newscasts hammered home the possible cause of death. Many, it is believed, were vaporized.
"It's like 9/11," said Poulin, editor of a monthly newspaper here called MRG du Granit. "All they find will be ashes."
Lac-Megantic is blessed with physical beauty, a picture-postcard wish-you-were-here feeling. But today, unease pervades this town not far from the border with Maine.
There's the shock of the tragedy. So much is still unknown about how the train, parked in nearby Nantes, began rolling toward Lac-Megantic after midnight on Saturday, July 6 -- unbeknownst to dispatchers and rail traffic controllers. Seventy-two tanker cars carrying crude oil jumped the track, sparking an explosion. At least 33 people are dead. Another 30 or so are missing.
There's also the daunting thought of rebuilding. About 40 businesses were leveled.
In a town of 6,000, nearly everyone is affected. People are seeing red at the mention of the train operator, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, and Edward Burkhardt, the American who heads the company.
A sign posted along a train track held this message: "Shame on you MMA." It is signed "The population" and refers to the "train from hell." At the school where evacuees were staying, a man held up a poster saying "No More Killer Trains."
A pair of hecklers unleashed obscenities at Burkhardt when he held a news conference Wednesday. Claude Charron, a pharmacist who was watching shared the outrage, with more nuanced and polite language.
The tragedy has prompted people to race to the hospital for tranquilizers. The pharmacist wondered how Burkhardt lives with himself.
"Did you sleep last night? I hope he took a lot of pills to sleep," he said.
A man standing outside the evacuee center said the atmosphere is so raw that the sight of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiling during a photo-op drove people up the wall.
"There's a lot of anger in this town," he said.
A volunteer firefighter in next-door Nantes, where the train began its deadly descent, is furious at the suggestion that firefighters had one iota to do with the accident. They'd put out a blaze on the train shortly before it began rolling and crashed into town.
"We do our jobs," he said in French, through a translator. "It's not funny."
Beauty and now pain
Lac-Megantic appears to be an unlikely place for ungodly carnage and populist rage. Its natural beauty makes it a vacation destination.
Tourism is helping redefine a place once associated with commercial and passenger rail and a host of other industries: paper and pulp, lumber and farming.
Rail -- the center of all of the attention today -- emerged as a king in the 20th century, and the city became an important hub between Montreal and points east, such as Halifax and New Brunswick. But passenger rail went away, and the city's businesses were hit hard during the recession-ravaged 1980s. With opportunities diminishing, young people moved to bigger cities. Population dropped.
Today, it's easy to see why this swath of what is called Quebec's Eastern Townships is an outdoorsman's paradise. Camping, skiing, hiking, swimming and fishing are immensely popular. A well-known observatory is a major attraction. Artists set up their easels there.
Take a spin to Lac-Megantic from Montreal, about 130 miles away. As you move east, the suburban start-and-stop becomes a Sunday drive that conjures a trip through, say, Kansas, motoring past vast acres of farmland. An occasional strip mall here, another village there.
As you approach the town, you see the grandeur. The lake from which the town takes its name glistens. Rolling mountains form a majestic backdrop.
Founded by the Scots and the French in the 1800s, Lac-Megantic's soundtrack is purely French today, with an occasional Scottish place name popping up -- such as Scotstown. Cruise down the main drag of Rue Laval and turn off side streets, you see a small town well-scrubbed. Away from the disaster site, a visitor is hard-pressed to find a structure in disrepair.
Artists, retirees, outdoors enthusiasts, the folks who left after high school and returned home for a visit -- they've made that drive. Some decided to stay.
A crazy idea