07/12/2013 03:56 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Mégantic prepares vigil to mark 1 week since derailment

Residents in the devastated town of Lac-Mégantic will gather early Saturday morning to mark one week since a runaway train derailed and exploded, claiming the lives of at least 24 people and leaving another 26 feared dead.

Friends and loved ones of the missing and dead will gather at the local high school at 1:15 a.m. ET to pay tribute to those lost and those still recovering from the disaster.

It's the first time the community will come together to mourn the enormous collective loss after a week of evacuations, public health concerns and clean up of the debris and oil dispersed by the rail cars — the shells of which remain in the worst-hit area of town.

More vigils are planned in Montreal, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and other communities near Lac-Mégantic, located in the province's Eastern Townships near the Maine border.

Difficult road to normal

Shell-shocked residents of Lac-Mégantic took a small step toward normal on Friday after homes and businesses reopened just yards away from the lakeside town's devastated centre.

Police erected an 2.5-metre fence blocking from view what was once the downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops — but which now resembles a blackened warzone.

Bells from the town's main church, whose spire towers over the treetops in this normally quiet town in Quebec's eastern hills, could be heard ringing out for the first time since the incident as residents prepared to bring in mementos of the dead for a memorial.

"It is good to be home, even if we're near a disaster area," said Andre Gabouri, 47, as he stood on his doorstep peering over the police barricade across the street and into the warped pile of train cars.

In a testament to the intensity of the blast, which killed an estimated 50 people in Canada's worst train incident in years, the vinyl siding of nearby houses was curled outward and the leaves in the trees blackened.

Officials on Thursday said Elianne Parenteau, 93, is among the dead. She is the first of the victims to be identified.

A death toll of 50 would make the accident the worst rail crash in North America since 1989, and Canada's deadliest accident since 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.

Round-the-clock search

Investigators on Friday continued a round-the-clock search of the enclosed "red zone" for more bodies and fresh clues to the cause of the crash.

Federal investigators have said they are focusing their probe on whether the train's operator — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic — followed proper safety rules. Police said they have not yet ruled out a crime — possibly criminal negligence.

MMA's owner, Ed Burkhardt, on Wednesday visited the town and said the train's conductor may not have set enough handbrakes when he parked late on July 5 in Nantes, a neighbouring town 13 kilometres up a gentle slope from Lac-Mégantic.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, whose government is making a $60 million aid package available to the community of about 6,000 people, said the company's behaviour had been "absolutely deplorable."

Guy Farrell, deputy director of the Quebec steelworkers' union Syndicat des Métallos, said he blamed the incident largely on inadequate federal regulations to keep operators like MMA in check.

"After what we saw in Lac-Mégantic… I mean, I don't want to panic the Canadian people, but if you live near a railroad track in this country can you really sleep peacefully at night?" he said. "For us, the important thing is that the government must tighten regulations now."

The train was part of a vast expansion in rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America as oil output soars in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines run out of space.

Its crash had forced a third of Lac-Mégantic's residents to leave their homes as the fires burned. All but 200 have now been allowed to return home.

Megane Turcotte, 17, and her brother were woken up by the explosions early Saturday morning and found their mother, Diane Bizier, was still out.

“At first we thought she was just somewhere where she couldn’t get in touch with us,” Turcotte said. “But after four, five, six hours, it started to sink in that she wasn’t coming back.”

Turcotte lost not only her mother, but also a cousin who was a waitress at the Musi-Café and another cousin who was at the bar with her boyfriend.

Four people in total, she said flatly. In a town of 6,000, few if any have escaped the indescribable loss.

On her smartphone is a photograph of her beaming mother, taken just last week, when Turcotte graduated from high school.

“I don’t think I’m ready to take flight on my own,” she said.

“I still need my mother.”