Town bar that was a festive gathering point becomes epicentre of tragedy

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - For many adults in this small Quebec town, it was recognized as the place to be for great imported suds, live music and a friendly atmosphere.

Now Le Musi-Cafe bar is recognized far beyond Lac-Megantic's borders for different reasons — as the epicentre of a disaster.

Locals believe it's the place where many of their now-missing neighbours were likely seen for the last time.

Witnesses say dozens of people were at the pub early Saturday morning, right up until a train carrying crude oil screeched off the nearby railroad tracks.

The crash immediately triggered a massive explosion that launched a wall of fire toward the building, a blaze that made headlines around the world.

One patron said the ground began to shake. He said he ran out and, in the rush to stay alive, he never managed to get back to his car.

"When I got out of the bar, I really felt the heat and I just ran, ran... 100 metres," said Maxime Picard, 29.

"I looked behind me and I saw my car in flames...

"A couple of seconds later I didn't see my car. The flames came in the middle of the downtown... It was crazy."

He said there might have been about 20 people inside the bar, and many more on an outside patio.

Another witness said the people outside stood a far better chance of fleeing.

An off-duty employee who was at the bar that night said that while patrons on the outdoor patio, including himself, managed to scramble for safety, he doesn't believe many people inside made it out.

Several people who describe themselves as friends and acquaintances of the missing say many of those unaccounted for were supposed to be at the pub that night.

The business was roughly 50 metres from the railway tracks.

People flocked to Le Musi-Cafe in the hours before the accident — drawn there by the beautiful summer weekend night, a pair of well-known musical acts, and at least two birthday celebrations.

David Vachon received an invitation to be part of one of those birthday parties.

He decided not to go.

Even though he calls himself a regular customer at the watering hole, he says he was too tired to go out after spending the previous night at the same bar.

Vachon said no one has heard from his friend who was celebrating the birthday that night, or from the man's wife.

"For everyone who was inside (the bar), we haven't heard much news about them," he said.

"I knew a good portion of them, around 15 who are now missing... It's terrible."

The night before the derailment, Vachon headed to Le Musi-Cafe, which had recently been renovated and expanded, to see two live acts popular in the area: Guy Bolduc and Yvon Ricard.

Both men were scheduled to take the stage again the next night.

Bolduc's parents told the French-language CBC that their son is unaccounted for.

Another woman invited to attend one of the birthday parties at Le Musi-Cafe decided not to go because she decided to stay home after a long week at work.

Anabelle Poisson-Gregoire, 18, said she knows many people who are still missing and a lot them were supposed to be at the bar.

"It was a beautiful place, everyone went there," she said of Le Musi-Cafe.

Since Saturday, the bar's Facebook page has been flooded with dozens of sympathy messages.

Jolyane Giroux also wasn't at Le Musi-Cafe that night, but she said she likely knew everyone who was there — a majority of whom she believes have not been heard from since.

"They aren't my sisters, they aren't my family, but they're friends," Giroux said outside the evacuee shelter on the edge of the tight-knit community of about 6,000.

"I knew them all, like almost anyone here could say they knew them all."

She said she was at the bar the night before the accident and that her sister had left Le Musi-Cafe an hour before the disaster.

A week earlier, she was part of a group of 120 people who threw a party for a friend.

Giroux said the bar's wide appeal attracted a broad clientele, aged 20 to 60 years old. Another regular, Kevin Houle, enjoyed the grub at Le Musi-Cafe, particularly the nachos and the chocolate fondue.

"There was always something going there on weekends," Houle said. "It was the best spot in town."

Vachon described Le Musi-Cafe as the place where everyone got together.

"I wasn't there (the night of the explosions), but I heard the bar was pretty full," he said.

"There were people on the patio when they saw the train arrive (and) this happened."