LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Rangeley Fire Chief Tim Pellerin remembers driving here in the early hours of July 6, 2013.

“It was like driving into hell. It really was,” Pellerin said. “It looked like a war zone – the trees, telephone poles, everything was burnt.”

About 30 firefighters from seven towns in Franklin County were called to assist local crews last July after more than 60 rail cars on an unattended train carrying crude oil derailed in the center of downtown. Several of the cars exploded, taking out dozens of businesses, offices and homes and killing 47 people.

On Sunday, many of those Maine firefighters, including Pellerin, returned to Lac-Megantic to attend a memorial service on the first anniversary of the catastrophe.

The Rue Laval, the main street through downtown, is still a pile of rubble and remains largely closed to traffic. There is a new downtown – Promenade Papineau – where the first shop opened in December, but the town of 6,000 just 20 miles from Maine is still recovering.

At around 1 a.m. the morning of the disaster, the train began slowly rolling downhill, although officials from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway say the brakes had been activated. Many people who were gathered at a popular cafe, the Musi-Cafe, were killed as cars barreled into the building and the oil ignited.

Firefighters from around Quebec were called to help, including many from Sherbrooke, a city of about 125,000 located 100 miles away.

As the firefighters from Maine were arriving, many residents sought refuge on a large hill above the town that is marked with an iron cross, a symbol of the town’s Catholic roots. Among them was 69-year-old Lucille Gilbert, who lives about a 45-minute drive away in the town of St. Georges, and who said she spent the night atop the mountain with a pair of binoculars.

“I was incredibly emotional when I saw the first firefighters from Maine arrive,” she said. “I heard some people comparing it to 9/11 on a smaller scale. For the people of this small town, it was.”

On Sunday Gilbert carried red, white and blue roses to the Maine firefighters who attended the memorial service for the victims of the disaster.

“Thank you 1,000 times for your hard work on July 6 of last year,” read the card that Gilbert presented to Pellerin. “We would like to give you these red, white and blue flowers – the color of your flag – to show our appreciation.”

SOMBER WEEKEND

About 1,000 people, including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, crowded into Ste-Agnes Catholic Church, and hundreds more gathered outside for a church service Sunday morning followed by a procession of emergency service personnel, firefighters, police and family members of victims through the Marche du Vents, or March of the Winds, a boardwalk constructed along the train tracks that ends with a wind chime with 47 chimes, one for each victim. It was the second part of a somber weekend that included a Mass and candlelit walk Saturday night, with residents and supporters wearing glowing green and white stars in solidarity.

Eight towns from Maine responded to the disaster in 2013 – Farmington, Rangeley, Chesterville, Eustis, New Vineyard, Strong, Phillips and East Dixfield. The Franklin County Emergency Management Agency was notified of the disaster by the U.S. Border Patrol after crews in Lac-Megantic realized the scope of the disaster was beyond what they could handle.

Robert Mercier, the city’s director of the environment, was asleep at his nearby condo when the disaster struck. He had just returned that day from a vacation in Bar Harbor with his wife, Sylvie.

When the train struck, taking out a number of buildings, including the Musi-Cafe, the collapsed buildings caused ruptures in the city’s pipelines, making it impossible for firefighters to get enough water to the disaster, said Mercier.

“I said I want every tanker in Quebec to come, and they did. We got all the trucks we wanted,” said Mercier. “The firemen from Maine said, ‘Let us do it. We will pump water from the lake.’ They had big pumps like I’d never seen before, and they pumped all the water we needed.”

SISTER CITY’S DONATIONS

In Farmington, which has identified itself as a sister city to Lac-Megantic since 1991, officials set up a relief fund that raised thousands of dollars to send to the Canadian town. Fire Chief Terry Bell said he remembers getting a call at around 6:30 on the morning of the disaster and seeing towers of black smoke rising from above the town.

“It’s really hard. They have a lot going on, and it’s an honor for us to come here,” he said. “There are a lot more people who wish they could have helped.”

For residents of Lac-Megantic and Quebec, Sunday’s memorial was a chance to see what progress the city has made toward recovery and to continue to show support for survivors and share a message of hope.

“It’s been a tough year. We are trying to rebuild and help people to survive, let alone get them to smile,” said Katy Cloutier, the city’s event coordinator and the organizer of the memorial. Originally from Lac-Megantic, she left her job as a journalist in Montreal to return to the town after the disaster.

“We really have to remember the 47 victims and come together to give their families the strength and hope for a new life,” she said. “I think people liked the memorial. I saw some smiles, and that was very important to me to see that.”