Back to Lac-Mégantic
The residents of Lac-Mégantic will never forget 6th July. The 6,000-person town made international headlines that day when a runaway train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil careered into town and exploded in its centre, leaving 47 dead, 21 orphaned and hundreds of residents displaced.
The derailment happened at 1.15am and the resulting fire burned for more than 36 hours. It took first responders another day and a half to halt what witnesses described as a “river of oil” flowing from the derailed MM&A (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic) tankers, which spilled an estimated 5.6 million litres of the stuff into the surrounding waterways, lake and soil and polluted 18 kilometres of shoreline.
The cleanup costs have been slated at over a billion Canadian dollars and many questions remain. Why are trains carrying dangerous materials permitted to be driven through well-populated Canadian towns? Who is responsible for the incident? And how will such a tight-knit town ever get over its loss?
I first arrived in Lac-Mégantic late on the day of the accident, joining a colleague 500 metres away from the crash behind police lines with other residents. We stood on the tracks, watching in disbelief as the city burned. My initial impression was of flames licking the summer night sky and billowing, black smoke that could be seen for miles.
I met 52-year-old Robert Chaput that night, whose panicked brothers roused him from his sleep shortly after the first explosion. They saw a mushroom cloud form above their heads as they ran from the house and felt an intense heat burn their necks. It was like a dream, he said at the time. “It was like a nightmare.”
Three months later, it’s surreal to return and check in with those who spoke to me in that time of crisis. It feels so different now. While residents and responders dealt with the aftermath in July, visitors and reporters came in droves, craning their necks and pressing binoculars and camera lenses through holes in the big, black makeshift fence erected around ground zero. On those first weekends, a line of cars filled with disaster tourists crawled like a funeral procession up the main drag. Everyone wanted to understand what had happened, to get a better look, and the city’s mayor welcomed us – hoping to bolster the local economy with tourism and bring attention to the town’s plight with extensive coverage in the days that followed the crash.
But today the streets are quiet. The sole McDonalds – once a bustling improvised press centre due to the free WiFi, electrical outlets and looming deadlines – seems strangely empty, though a few teens and older residents still gossip here. The disaster tourism season is over, but I’m told by a nearby paint store owner with a $20 “I ⁄ Lac-Mégantic” T-shirt hanging in her window that tour buses still stop at the site from time to time, snapping photos of the barren blocks of dirt.
“They saw a mushroom cloud form above their heads as they ran from the house and felt an intense heat burn their necks. It was like a dream, he said at the time. ‘It was like a nightmare”
It’s a stark departure from the rolling hills and picturesque landscape that surround you as you’re driving in. It’s all disarmingly normal-looking when you head down the thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of downtown – there’s a high school, a Tim Hortons coffee shop and a picturesque graveyard. It’s like any other quaint Eastern Township until you take a hard left and are greeted by a pile of polluted rock under heavy surveillance. This is where the city centre used to be. Today, it’s like a crater. And you can’t look away.
Three months on…
I call on Chaput to ask if he still talks about the night of the accident with his neighbours.
“No one wants to talk about it. Or they do, but they don’t talk about it. But you can see it in their faces, in their gestures,” he says between deep drags of his cigarette. “The other thing is we have this hole in the middle of our city that we see every day. It reminds us what we’ve been through, so you don’t have to talk about it – because it’s right there. It’s like having a knife in your back that keeps turning.”
Indeed, the hole in the middle of town isn’t just a reminder of the tragic consequences of the derailment. The local economy has stalled and hundreds have lost jobs. Residents, business owners and regional captains of industry do not know what, exactly, is going on any more. A commercial strip-mall project – which will allegedly triple the rent for new tenants – and a multi-million downtown redevelopment plan were signed off without sufficient public consultation.
The daily briefings and updates that followed the accident slowed and then stopped as the press corp moved on to other stories and out of town. And while the local paper, L’Echo De Frontenac, does an admirable job staying abreast of developments, the story has all but disappeared from the international media landscape.
Meanwhile, the municipal government and its mayor, who has been in power for the last decade, extended their mandate for two more years without an election. The federal government in Ottawa, after parading politicians through for press conferences and sound bites during the disaster, have since been bickering with Quebec’s provincial government over how to deal with the vast financial burden of the decontamination process. The insurance situation is a mess. And the lawsuits that inevitably followed the tragedy will take a long time yet to settle.
“We have this hole in the middle of our city that we see every day. It reminds us what we’ve been through, so you don’t have to talk about it”
There’s also talk of laying down new tracks through town to get business moving again, though none of the residents seem to be ready and some are deeply angered by such proposals. And three months later, while searching for answers and solutions to myriad problems that were created by the explosion, Lac-Mégantic is still burying its dead.
The fire on 6th July burned so hot and so deep that bone fragments of bodies, or what was left of them, had to be sent to international labs for proper identification. Some were never even found, believe to be vapourised. Without proper closure, the grief seems to remain in a state of suspension. It also happened that both of the local funeral homes in town were off limits, destroyed or waiting idly in the ‘red zone’ and slated for destruction.
Third-generation undertaker François Jacques — who lost his lab that night but lost no time in setting up an alternative space — told me that, while he had always dealt with death as a day job, the magnitude of the incident had been difficult to contend with. He had already overseen 23 funerals and it was only now, at the end of October, that he was preparing for the final services. Jacques tells me he senses that “people want to finally turn the page.” But in many ways it’s harder today. “We moved forward more in the first few weeks than we have in the last
Jacques is also among the 125 business owners in limbo waiting for the results of their insurance claims. He wants to be able to return to his burned-out property and see what’s left of it.
“There are problems everywhere… I think we’re a long way away [from getting over this]. And on top of everyone hurting, we don’t know what’s ahead of us,” he says. “We’re not being told what’s going to happen now. So we continue, day by day, all of us in the same situation, trying to advance, but set back with so many unknowns.”
André Fortin, the owner of one of the few convenience stores left standing, has heard his fair share of conjecture about the future and speculates about a number of scenarios that might play out as the new town centre and business sector is re-created. This event, he says, may finally bridge a decades-long, cross-river rivalry between the downtown and Fatima neighbourhoods.
Or perhaps, he says, with so much uncertainty and lack of viable job opportunities, people will leave.
For now, he jokes that he can’t wait for winter to arrive so people finally start complaining about something as normal as bad weather again. But Canadian winters are long, dark and extremely cold. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop to 25 below. There is a real fear that depression, loneliness and alcoholism could spike here as people head indoors.
“You have to ask people how they are. You don’t have a choice about that. Everyone knows each other,” says Fortin, adding that the pain is still very present. It was only yesterday, he tells me, that one of his customers broke down at the convenience store counter. She lost her partner in the accident just three days before their daughter was born.
“Even if you don’t want to enter into it again, we all know that our neighbours need us. So you have to be compassionate, and we are,” he says. “We must be.”
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