It’s become a symbol of rebirth for a city still struggling to move forward. After 17 painful and difficult months, Musi-Café in Lac-Mégantic finally reopens Monday. In a city devastated by one of the worst rail disasters in Canadian history, a new chapter begins.
The Musi-Café, now located just beyond the tracks where trains have resumed transporting hazardous material, was a popular bar and gathering place. On July 6, 2013, it was where 30 of the 47 victims died in the toxic inferno.
Owner Yannick Gagne left the bar about 40 minutes before tragedy hit. He saw the whole thing unfold from his bedroom window and remembers it like it was yesterday.
"The sky, everything inside, outside became orange", he says. "I felt the heat coming to the window, blowing heat. I saw a wall, a big wall of fire 300, 400 feet high."
Gagne lost two of his employees, and knew most of the 28 others who did not make it out in time. To this day he still has horrible nightmares of being trapped inside with them and watching people trying to escape.
On the streets of his small town, he says some people look away when they see him coming.
"His eyes look at me and I know he’s thinking, ‘Ah, Yannick from the cafe,’" says Gagne. "I know it’s normal, but it puts a lot of pressure ... I’m not the devil, I didn’t put the train inside the Musi-Café."
Feelings of guilt and loss almost drove Gagne out of town, but many people begged him to rebuild the cafe. They needed it to heal, they said, and to move on.
Gagne wanted to give back, so he agreed.
"I did it for the people of Lac-Mégantic. My friends, my customers, everyone from here sending me email, phone calls, ‘don’t let us down, don’t go please, we need you. We need a Musi-Café, bigger, better and beautiful.’ It was like I had a debt."
The new Muse-Café is bigger and beautiful — and about 10 times more expensive than what Gagne paid for the old place. With his father’s help, Gagne put more than $1 million of his own money into the project and will owe over $600,000 to the bank by the time it is all done.
His insurance wasn’t nearly enough to cover the costs, and promises of compensation from the government have not come through yet. Construction stopped several times when workers couldn’t get paid, and he fought battles with town officials. Start dates for the opening had to be postponed, too.
Gagne said he wanted to call it quits many times, but the community of Lac-Mégantic and beyond has rallied around him.
Friends, family and complete strangers have come to help him with the final preparations. The uniforms for the staff were donated by a major retailer. A new sound system worth about $100,000 was offered at half price, including free installation.
"Everybody wants to know when will the Musi-Café reopen," says Pierre Labbe, account manager at the local bank, as he polishes the new bar. "We feel proud for Yannick. We know what he has been through since the accident. We’re happy to be close to him and we’ll support him the way we can."
Two of the original staff who survived have come back to work for Gagne.
Karine Blanchette was a waitress at the old Musi-Café and narrowly escaped death herself that night. She was coming back to help a fellow waitress at the end of the night, but could not find parking. Just minutes after she pulled away, the train plowed through the town.
Blanchette still suffers flashbacks - things like loud noises, the smell of gas or seeing a train can set them off - and she had to leave Lac-Mégantic to get some distance. When she heard Gagne was rebuilding the cafe, she decided to return.
"I hope this place will be the symbol of resilience," she says. "When I see the new Musi-Café I see that like the phoenix. I hope the Musi-Café will be a place to give happiness again."
It will be a place to honour those who died too. There's a memorial plaque, the "Blue Angel" symbolizing their spirits rising above the the tankers on fire below. The name of each victim has been etched into the speakers above the stage.
‘You have to move forward’
At a private party a few weeks ago, Gagne gathered his family and closest friends. Almost every person walking through the door was either a survivor or victim or both.
Christian Lafontaine came with his wife. They are both survivors who ran out of the cafe seconds before it burst into flames. His brother, brother’s wife, another sister-in-law and a secretary who worked for the family business all perished.
Still, Lafontaine intends to be a regular customer of the new Musi-Café. He says the only solution is to look forward.
"All the people of Mégantic … they haven’t healed yet.They suffer still," he says.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, you have to continue, you have to move forward. We need Musi-Café, we need men like Yannick, it must continue."
The night after the party Gagne is restless. He can’t quite recreate the ambience of the old cafe, but hopes it will come with time.
"The worst is past. The worst is death. It’s important for me, I will continue. If I can help someone I will do it. It will be a special, special bar. A special place to be."