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Lac-Mégantic vigil cancelled, railway chief heads home

A family carries flowers into Sainte-Agnes Church in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec July 12, 2013. Police erected an 8-foot (2.5-meter) fence blocking from view what was once a downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops - but which now resembles a blackened warzone after a train pulling 72 cars of crude oil jumped the track and exploded into flames in Lac Megantic on July 6. Some 24 bodies have so far been recovered in the blast zone, police said on Thursday, with another 26 reported missing and presumed dead.

Christinne Muschi/REUTERS

The chairman of the U.S. company whose train derailed in Lac-Mégantic last week said Friday that he is en route to an airport after a brief visit to the community on Wednesday.

Edward Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Mégantic Wednesday and attempted to get accreditation to visit an area cordoned off by investigators. After he was denied the credentials, he held an impromptu press conference on a residential street for more than 30 minutes before police took him to a nearby station for questioning.

Reached on his cell phone Friday morning, Mr. Burkhardt declined to say whether he planned to return to Lac-Mégantic.

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"I'm not taking any reporters' calls. I'm trying to head for an airport right now," he said before hanging up the phone.

At an unscheduled press conference on Friday morning a harried Mayor Collette Roy-Laroche cancelled the first vigil planned after last week's deadly derailment, citing security concerns.

"We told the mayor we could handle the 3,000 people expected, but we asked her if she could, she said no," said Quebec provincial police spokesman Benoit Richard.

With people encouraged to stay away, a number of vigils are planned in cities across Quebec. In the Eastern Townships village of Sutton, residents plan to gather at a track spur owned by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the same railway company involved in the Lac Megantic disaster.

Inside the church, small paper hearts were distributed on Friday for locals to share messages. A series of small memorials have begun to appear around town and the flags on public buildings now stand at half mast, nearly a week after the deadly crash claimed a feared 50 lives.

Jacqueline Roy, 75, wasn't immediately prepared to write her thoughts on the yellow construction paper heart she was given. She said she would take her time to think about what she wanted to express.

"I find this very sad. Seeing our city like this is like the sky falling," she said.

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Nathalie Bouffard stared at the crash site from the steps of the church with her 13-year-old daughter Erika.

"This is very hard," said Ms. Bouffard, who arrived in town Friday morning. "I spent 20 years of my life here. This is the town of my youth."

Ms. Bouffard says her mother, who lives in Lac-Mégantic, moved just two weeks ago from a home only several hundred feet from the crash site.

"She might have died if she didn't. You just don't know," she said, fighting back tears.

On Friday afternoon, four more bodies had been found. The total number of bodies found is  now 28. Seven more of the victims have been identified, bringing the number of identified victims to eight.

With a report from Daniel Bitonti in Lac-Mégantic

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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