Loss, now anger, fuel a town forever changed


Story highlights

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"

Lac-Megantic, Quebec CNN —  

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.”

Opinion: Stop shipping volatile oil by rail

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.

See how the crash happened

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.”

Death toll rises

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.”