LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – The mayor who became a household name for her poise in the aftermath of the rail tragedy that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic in 2013 will not seek re-election this fall.
Colette Roy Laroche, who has been mayor since 2002, said on the town’s website Thursday she will not seek another term.
“The prospect of another two-year mandate makes me think about my priorities,” she said in the statement.
“The workload that is demanded, especially over the past two years, and the illness and subsequent death of my husband (last February) tell me I have to slow down, rest up and think about my health and my family.”
Roy Laroche, who did not give interviews Thursday, said she believes the next municipal leaders will have lots of work to get through as the reconstruction efforts continue in Lac-Megantic, which has about 6,000 residents.
“Projects are underway and I am convinced that the next town council will have plenty of inspiration in rebuilding our municipality,” she said. “More than ever, Lac-Megantic needs men and women who can form a dynamic team.”
The 47 people died when a runaway train carrying crude oil barreled into Lac-Megantic in July 2013 and derailed, sparking explosions that also wiped out much of the downtown core.
In an interview with The Canadian Press ahead of last year’s first anniversary of the tragedy, Roy Laroche opened up about the personal impact the disaster had on her.
Two of her cousins died and her son could have died in the catastrophe.
She said she had thought constantly over the year about her cousins Jean-Pierre Roy, 56, and Eliane Parenteau, 93, as well as the other victims, even as her long days as mayor consumed much of her life.
“Just passing by the damage every day – several times per day – reminds us,” she said.
“But despite this, we must continue to move forward. If we let our emotions take over, I think I would just stay at home.”
Roy Laroche was nearing the end of her term in the summer of 2013 and wasn’t planning to run again in the election in the fall of that year. After the tragedy, her mandate was extended for two more years by the provincial government.
Managing her grief became an additional demand of the job for Roy Laroche, with the emotional balancing act starting right after the first explosion.
With sky-high flames devouring her town, she took on her unprecedented mayoral duties that night despite the dread her loved ones could be caught in the inferno.
For hours, Roy Laroche feared her son, Frederic Laroche, was among the dozens who were missing.
After the first blast, she drove as close to the fire as she could.
“I said to myself, ‘I hope Frederic isn’t there,’” said Roy Laroche, who discovered the next morning that he was safe at home.
She believes that outcome was thanks, in part, to the fact she was unavailable to babysit for him.
Otherwise, he would have likely been at the popular Musi-Cafe bar, where more than two dozen people died when the pub was incinerated.
Roy Laroche was close to tears as she recalled the story.
“Grandma had visitors, so grandma could not babysit and that’s why he stayed home,” she said.
That night, she also thought of Parenteau, who lived downtown and had limited mobility.
The mayor said her cousin, the first victim publicly identified by authorities, had expressed a desire to die at home.
“In the end, it was a tragic death, but at the same time it corresponded with what she had wanted at the end of her life,” said Roy Laroche.
The mayor, who earned the nickname the “Granite Lady” for her composure and calming demeanour during the crisis, said the tears that flowed over that year did so without warning.
“I think I control my emotions quite well, but at the same time I don’t have control of the moment when it pours out,” she said.
“This is a small place… We can’t forget.”
Premier Philippe Couillard paid tribute to Roy Laroche.
“What a magnificent example of courage, of determination and of service in terrible circumstances,” he said in Montreal.
He said he would call her to wish her good luck and to express his gratitude as premier.
“During all those terrible days, she projected an image of strength, of courage and of unity that everyone will remember.”
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre described his outgoing mayoral colleague as his “idol” and a “role model.”
“Colette is a ball of energy,” Coderre said. “She has been an inspiration in terms of what a mayor should be.
“She probably went through the worst thing you could in politics and she showed how to behave in the face of adversity.” – With files from Andy Blatchford, Peter Rakobowchuk and Lia Levesque