Town of 6,000 in bucolic eastern Quebec was devastated by runaway train
Lac-Megantic is a magnet for artists and outdoors enthusiasts
Residents focus their anger on American executive in charge of rail company
Business owner, library officials pledge to rise "like the phoenix"
The runaway train stirred special sorrow for Daniel Poulin. The sister of his childhood baby sitter is gone. So is a golf buddy.
They are among the dozens of missing souls believed to have perished in a fiery derailment that tore a hole in the heart of this Canadian town on a languid Saturday morning just a week ago. The world shuddered as newscasts hammered home the possible cause of death. Many, it is believed, were vaporized.
“It’s like 9/11,” said Poulin, editor of a monthly newspaper here called MRG du Granit. “All they find will be ashes.”
Lac-Megantic is blessed with physical beauty, a picture-postcard wish-you-were-here feeling. But today, unease pervades this town not far from the border with Maine.
There’s the shock of the tragedy. So much is still unknown about how the train, parked in nearby Nantes, began rolling toward Lac-Megantic after midnight on Saturday, July 6 – unbeknownst to dispatchers and rail traffic controllers. Seventy-two tanker cars carrying crude oil jumped the track, sparking an explosion. At least 33 people are dead. Another 30 or so are missing.
There’s also the daunting thought of rebuilding. About 40 businesses were leveled.
In a town of 6,000, nearly everyone is affected. People are seeing red at the mention of the train operator, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, and Edward Burkhardt, the American who heads the company.
A sign posted along a train track held this message: “Shame on you MMA.” It is signed “The population” and refers to the “train from hell.” At the school where evacuees were staying, a man held up a poster saying “No More Killer Train.”
A pair of hecklers unleashed obscenities at Burkhardt when he held a news conference Wednesday. Claude Charron, a pharmacist who was watching shared the outrage, with more nuanced and polite language.
The tragedy has prompted people to race to the hospital for tranquilizers. The pharmacist wondered how Burkhardt lives with himself.
“Did you sleep last night? I hope he took a lot of pills to sleep,” he said.
A man standing outside the evacuee center said the atmosphere is so raw that the sight of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiling during a photo-op drove people up the wall.
“There’s a lot of anger in this town,” he said.
A volunteer firefighter in next-door Nantes, where the train began its deadly descent, is furious at the suggestion that firefighters had one iota to do with the accident. They’d put out a blaze on the train shortly before it began rolling and crashed into town.
“We do our jobs,” he said in French, through a translator. “It’s not funny.”
Beauty and now pain
Lac-Megantic appears to be an unlikely place for ungodly carnage and populist rage. Its natural beauty makes it a vacation destination.
Tourism is helping redefine a place once associated with commercial and passenger rail and a host of other industries: paper and pulp, lumber and farming.
Rail – the center of all of the attention today – emerged as a king in the 20th century, and the city became an important hub between Montreal and points east, such as Halifax and New Brunswick. But passenger rail went away, and the city’s businesses were hit hard during the recession-ravaged 1980s. With opportunities diminishing, young people moved to bigger cities. Population dropped.
Today, it’s easy to see why this swath of what is called Quebec’s Eastern Townships is an outdoorsman’s paradise. Camping, skiing, hiking, swimming and fishing are immensely popular. A well-known observatory is a major attraction. Artists set up their easels there.
Take a spin to Lac-Megantic from Montreal, about 130 miles away. As you move east, the suburban start-and-stop becomes a Sunday drive that conjures a trip through, say, Kansas, motoring past vast acres of farmland. An occasional strip mall here, another village there.
As you approach the town, you see the grandeur. The lake from which the town takes its name glistens. Rolling mountains form a majestic backdrop.
Founded by the Scots and the French in the 1800s, Lac-Megantic’s soundtrack is purely French today, with an occasional Scottish place name popping up – such as Scotstown. Cruise down the main drag of Rue Laval and turn off side streets, you see a small town well-scrubbed. Away from the disaster site, a visitor is hard-pressed to find a structure in disrepair.
Artists, retirees, outdoors enthusiasts, the folks who left after high school and returned home for a visit – they’ve made that drive. Some decided to stay.
A crazy idea
The small shops and enterprises obliterated by the train played an integral role in bringing life to the town. They delivered a taste of art, culture and fashion.
“Let’s get this town going,” is how artist Louise Latulipe described their can-do attitude.
But the runaway train sidetracked the dream of Luce Robineau.
She owned a funky shop called IDfolle, which means “crazy idea” – a cute name with an entrepreneurial ring. The boutique featured art, clothes, papier-mache and other items with a Quebec flair. She even fashioned jewelry from a wasp nest.
She was out of town when her family called to tell her the downtown – and her shop – were burning. She couldn’t get her head around what she heard.
“It’s a joke? Right?” The night before, there was an art exhibit at a renovated train station.
In the hours and days since the disaster, she’s gotten e-mails, Facebook messages, telephone calls: Are you OK?
She’s spent so much time responding to friends that she hasn’t even begun to cope with the loss of her business and the paperwork that lies ahead. She hopes to survive by drawing from savings, and she’s counting on insurance money, maybe even help from the government.
It will take time but she wants to stay in business. People are already sharing thoughts about how to rebuild.
“I don’t want to move. If I open up again, I want to be in a downtown area,” she said. “Life will gain over death.”
Historical artifacts up in smoke
The train destroyed the town’s municipal library: 60,000 books, discs, videos and other items. Gone with them: a growing and irreplaceable collection of artifacts that told the story of Lac-Megantic.
The library was a downtown centerpiece, says Yvette Cellard, a member of its board of directors. The place buzzed with students from a nearby junior college, moms who brought kids there for storytelling and genealogists who gathered to discuss a rich past.
As the library thrived over the years, it was easy to forget that its creation had once been a political football. Some people in town had opposed it; others believed building a library would promote culture.
Now, the only books left are the ones that haven’t been returned by readers. Cellard and her cohorts want to build a new library. Already, someone has started a drive to collect new books.
“A library is a place of culture, learning and communication,” she said. “A library has to be in the center of the town.”
Her top concern right now, however, is people, including the handful at the library who’ve lost their jobs.
“My concern is to get them back to work.”
Mourning, on the street and the Web
It didn’t take long for the townspeople and its diaspora to figure out who was never going to come home.
It is believed that many of the victims were partying in a popular spot, the Musi-Café. Some might have already gone to bed in apartments above the shops.
Jacques Cloutier, a teacher, remembers two missing people: Genevieve Breton, a young woman who performed in a popular Quebec talent show, and Guy Bolduc, a well-known singer.
People talk about the odd twist that saved some lives at the cafe: They were outside having a smoke and eluded the fireball.
There’s a Facebook site honoring the town and those killed: Lac-Megantic: Support aux gens. Messages pour in – inquiries about lost people, reminiscences and tributes.
Roger Sirois aired his grief about the loss of a loved one. “All my ‘small world’ is turned upside down,” he said on the Facebook page. He thanked people for their support and urged everyone to be united.
Almost to a person, residents are confident the town can survive this ordeal. Says Cloutier: “Now it’s time to start looking to rebuild … building something new from the ashes like a phoenix.”
Thank God for little things, people say. Had the disaster occurred during the daytime, more people would have been killed. The offices of the doctors, psychologists and lawyers were empty in the middle of the night.
But for some, optimism is checked by cynicism.
Hal Crowley wants answers, and he isn’t getting them from the powers-that-be. What happened out there and why, he asks, sitting in an apartment without electric power. And when are things getting back to normal?
The nostalgia of buying his first record downtown as a child is joined now by a disturbing memory: Hearing his niece on the phone, screaming “”fire fire fire,” urging him to rush home.
Richard LeFebvre, who held up the “killer train” sign at the center for evacuees, said he went there to see Burkhardt and wrote the sign in English so the American executive could understand it.
The solution to the problem is simple, he said. Don’t move oil through a town. It’s dangerous.
“If they need to transport oil, you go another way,” he said. “It’s not war. We don’t want explosives near a house.”
Daniel Poulin, the newspaper editor who counts friends among the missing, feels grateful for some things – and angry about others.
The train crashed near his home, sparking an orange inferno. He and his wife scrambled out with their prized possessions: the dog and cat. Their house was spared.
But he feels a particular ire for Burkhardt. Many people in the region think the rail executive should have been on the scene immediately and believe he hasn’t taken the proper blame for the accident.
Burkhardt told CNN that other people from his company responded immediately and that he was more useful in his Chicago office. He said the investigation is continuing, but the company has suspended the train engineer.
Poulin says Burkhardt was rude and insensitive. He dislikes the impatient way he responded to reporters’ questions Wednesday. Did it occur to him that he was speaking English to a largely French-speaking press corps?
“We will rebuild, that’s for sure,” Poulin says. “We won’t forget about it. We’ll have enough time to hate Mr. What’s-His-Name from Chicago.”