07/14/2013 11:36 EDT | Updated 09/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic Death Toll Rises To 37 (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

UPDATE: Police updated the death toll to 37 at a press conference Monday.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The parish priest in a Quebec town gripped by tragedy said Sunday that he struggled to find the words to comfort his flock.

Steve Lemay said he and his colleagues have tried to bring some solace to Lac-Megantic in the week since a horrific train derailment killed an estimated 50 people and razed the town centre.

But he said some residents haven't even begun to grieve and it's far too soon to speak of recovery. With many questions about the crash still unanswered, the loss hasn't fully sunk in, he told reporters outside the Ste-Agnes Church.

"We're far from acceptance," he said, adding many families haven't been able to say goodbye to the loved ones whose lives were cut short.

"Normally, when we lose someone we love, we can see them, we can make contact.

"We don't have that here."

Two more bodies were pulled from the rubble Sunday, bringing the official death toll to 35. Fifteen people remained missing, more than a week after the disaster.

Authorities demolished two buildings because they were said to be unstable and posed a threat to crews working there.

A heat wave has added another complication to crews sifting through the wreckage.

Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said three firefighters suffered minor injuries Sunday as temperatures hovered around 30 degrees Celsius.

It's even hotter on site, Brunet said.

"For the workers, they have to wear heavy equipment and masks and they sometimes need to go into (areas) that can be 40 or 50 degrees," he said in an interview.

"We have to replace these guys every 15, 20 minutes."

The crisis gripping Lac-Megantic has prompted town council to make an unusual request: it is asking that municipal elections be suspended this fall.

The council passed a resolution over the weekend asking the provincial government to extend members' elected term by two years, and put off the vote scheduled for November.

Members said they wanted to devote all their energy to rebuilding the town — not to campaigning.

For her part, the popular local mayor had publicly spoken about retiring this fall but the current crisis has cast doubt on those plans.

"It's not to put democracy aside," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said of the request to put off the election.

"If we are in an election campaign starting at the beginning of August, then who will run Lac-Megantic... all the way to Nov. 4 (election day)?"

Laroche, who has served as Lac-Megantic's mayor for 11 years, urged Quebecers to visit to help get the economy going again — though she cautioned that those looking to get a closer look at the wreckage will be disappointed.

High walls have been erected to prevent onlookers from getting a peek at the site.

Starting Monday, residents whose homes were evacuated will be eligible for $1,000 from the province as part of the first round of compensation.

But the grieving process is far from over and the church has served as a rallying point since it reopened to the public Friday.

A candlelight vigil was held on the steps that night, and the church bells rang 50 times Saturday, once for each of the people feared to have been killed in the disaster.

A temporary memorial has been set up near the altar, combining heartfelt messages from mourners and words of encouragement sent in by supporters across the province and beyond.

Lemay said the church aims to be an oasis for the community — one of the few places to effectively shut out the sound of heavy machinery combing through the rubble.

"Our faith doesn't remove our suffering, but it ensures despair won't have the last word," he said.

The congregation gathered for its first Sunday mass since last weekend's derailment.

Charles Vallieres, the 31-year-old priest who presided over the mass, was ordained to the priesthood only a month ago.

The regular weekly service made only a brief allusion to the disaster, praising the countless Good Samaritans who have set aside their own suffering to help others.

Offers of volunteer help have poured in, including on the web where people have offered their various skills to help struggling Lac-Megantic residents.

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