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Shell-shocked residents eager to return home in Quebec town

A man console his friend at the Polyvanlente Montignac, the school sheltering the people who were forced to leave their houses after the exp
A man console his friend at the Polyvanlente Montignac, the school sheltering the people who were forced to leave their houses after the exp

By Julie Gordon and Richard Valdmanis

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - Three days after a runaway train derailed and exploded in the downtown core of Lac-Megantic, many residents of the Quebec tourist town are still waiting for answers about missing loved ones, while others are just impatient to return home.

With the fires now out and the authorities finally able to access the epicenter of the blasts, the death toll is expected to climb and many of the town's evacuated residents will finally be allowed back to assess the damage.

For the families of the dead and missing - around 50 people altogether - the recovery efforts will start to bring some closure, though it may still take weeks or even months before all are identified.

"They know their loved ones were there, on the site. Most of them are now waiting for confirmation - because that makes it official," said Steve Lemay, the parish priest of Lac-Megantic, who has been meeting with affected families. "It's clear that they are not waiting for the missing to return."

Quebec police said late on Monday that they had so far recovered 13 bodies from the blackened rubble of what was once the historic downtown strip.

The coroner's office asked relatives of the missing to bring in brushes, combs and razors so specialists could extract DNA samples from strands of hair.

By Monday evening, the emergency crews had finally reached the Musi-Cafe, a downtown bar near the epicenter of the blast. A band was performing that night and the building was packed with people, eyewitnesses told Reuters.

"I don't know how many friends I lost that night," said Jean-Sebastien Jacques, a 24-year-old amateur mixed martial arts fighter who was walking toward the Musi-Cafe at the time of the accident. "We have looked at the shelter and around town, but that bar was full when the train hit."

Jacques played Reuters a dramatic video he shot on his cellphone right after the crash, which showed a ball of fire engulfing buildings and then another explosion that made him turn and run so quickly his shoes came off.

"The heat was unbearable," he said. "It was like holding your hand over a flame, but it was my entire back."

SNEAKING IN

Throughout the day, town residents idled near the police perimeter, eager for any sign they'd be allowed back into their homes inside the evacuation zone.

Some of the more impatient sneaked past police lines to collect fresh clothes and sleep in their own beds. Resident Jacques Oudet, who lived across the street from the tracks, said that he wasn't concerned about the danger anymore.

"The tragedy is over now, you know," the 59-year-old said. "There's nothing to monitor now, to my knowledge."

Still, the police urged residents to stay out of the perimeter, which extends about 500 meters in all directions from the crash site.

"You have to understand that this is still a crime scene," said Sergeant Benoit Richard. Police have said they would treat the area as a crime scene until foul play was ruled out.

Some 1,500 of the 2,000 people evacuated after the accident will be allowed home over the next few days, authorities said, with the first groups expected to return on Tuesday.

Back at the perimeter, Jean-Pierre Bedard, 64, joined the small crowd of residents and visitors watching from afar as the authorities sifted through the rubble in search of bodies.

When asked what the tragedy would mean for the small community, Bedard took a positive tone: "I think we'll recover, it's not as bad as it could have been."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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