Lac-Mégantic Rising: The Tragedy Examined, One Year Later
A derailed train, a massive explosion, 47 dead. One year later, the Quebec town of 6,000 is still reeling as it negotiates its recovery.
Driving into town, the first thing that stands out is the forest: pine, spruce and birch. Semis loaded with logs dot the last third of the three-hour trip southeast from Montreal, so there’s no escaping the trees. Next are the mountains, part of the Appalachian range that connects to nearby Maine and home to some of the finest stargazing on the continent. Then there’s the namesake lake, a 26-square-kilometre body of water that draws bathers, boaters and anglers during the too-short summer months.
Continue south on Laval Street, the main drag in this 6,000-person idyll, past the motels Le Quiet and Le Château, past the high school, the hospital, the Canadian Tire and the Tim Hortons. The Sainte-Agnès cemetery, a sloping parcel of land overlooking the lake, is on the right. Drive on, another minute or so, and they’ll start to appear-the traces of what happened.
The first sign that something has gone wrong here is the dirt. Downtown, it’s everywhere. This is not a simple spring thaw situation. If it’s not grit being whipped up by the wind, it’s mounds of earth populating the landscape, giant anthills bumping up against pockmark craters.
Whether there was going to be a rail accident of nuclear-scale within North American borders wasn’t so much a question of if but of when: transport safety agencies in both the United States and Canada had been highlighting the vulnerabilities of DOT-111 oil tankers like the ones involved in Lac-Mégantic for more than two decades. The federal government recently announced a new safety measure that would necessitate the retrofitting or phasing-out of the old tank cars, but it’s too late for this community.
Much of Roy-Laroche’s appeal lies in her relatability. During her first press conference on the day of the disaster, she spoke as a citizen of Lac-Mégantic. Pale and stricken, she had no idea how many were dead (by the end of July 6, 1,000 of the 6,000 townspeople were still unaccounted for) or if she had family among them. “I needed to tell everyone what steps were being taken and I needed to reassure them,” says Roy-Laroche. “But on another level, I was like everyone else, thinking, This is terrible. What will we do? What will we become?”
In early March, she was in D.C., lobbying Washington for stricter rail safety regulations. Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway, the now-defunct company behind the crash, was American-owned, and criminal charges were recently laid against three of its Canadian employees. Now Roy-Laroche is home, attempting to find a middle ground between moving on too quickly and not moving quickly enough. A citizen-engagement program called Reinventer la ville (Reinventing the city) has been set up to get Méganticois involved in the creation of the new expanded downtown. At the inaugural public information session on March 26, the crowd of 400 was-in a typical schism-split: while some attendees hailed the initiatives (14 projects, including the planned relocation of the main grocery store, pharmacy and liquor commission to the Fatima sector), others criticized the lack of transparency in the decision-making process. The carless residents of Fatima were beyond desperate: they had been cut off from Sainte-Agnès, where almost all business is done, since July. Still in the grip of a hard, seemingly never-ending winter, many people were on edge.
Propping up flagging spirits and convincing citizens to remain patient can be a Sisyphean task. But patience is not a virtue everyone can afford. It’s now April, and 100 or so people who lost jobs in the blast are set to cash their final employment insurance cheques. If the Canadian government doesn’t grant a temporary reprieve, they will have to put in around 700 hours of work to be eligible again-a tough goal to meet when a critical mass of local businesses are still shuttered.
The second sign that something has gone wrong in Lac-Mégantic is the sound. The tooth-aching clank of a pile driver building the base of a bridge adjoining Sainte-Agnès and Fatima can be heard on either shore of the Chaudière River. The new crossing is scheduled to open by October, “if all goes well”- a phrase uttered with frequency in these parts.
The cacophony points to something else: recovery. Lac-Mégantic is heading into its second year in a new world. The multi-million-dollar cleanup efforts are massive and ongoing: six million litres of oil had gushed from the ruptured tankers, with hundreds of thousands of litres spilling into the town’s sewer system, river and lake; and soil decontamination is focused on a 31-hectare site downtown. The environmental impact hasn’t yet been fully assessed, let alone dealt with.
Yannick Gagné has been vacillating between succumbing and recovering for nine months. This isn’t immediately obvious: at six-foot-four, he’s a barrel-chested monolith. But his voice runs low and fast, the level rising whenever he talks about money troubles, or the bar-his bar-that was once the rollicking heart of this community. On July 6, 30 people died at Musi-Café, the most popular hangout in town, and 17 more in the surrounding apartments and houses.
Since then, he’s kept busy, focusing on projects like the Musi-Café d’été, a temporary show-bar that attracted, last August and September, popular Quebec acts such as Vincent Vallières and Fred Pellerin. Gagné is currently absorbed in a more permanent venture: the new Musi-Café, slated to open this summer.
Gagné feels trapped, both by his misfortune and by his opportunity. He had finished extensive renovations on Musi-Café 24 hours before the bar exploded and hadn’t yet adjusted his insurance policy. He’s on the hook for that money and currently supports a family of six-his wife, mother-in-law and three kids-on the $300 a week the Red Cross provides. Failure is not an option. “I’ve sometimes thought of giving up, but I’m stuck here,” says the 35-year-old. “So many of us are facing the pressures of beginning again, and beyond that, the stress of losing people close to us. We say hello and we can see it in each other’s eyes. If only we didn’t have to worry about money on top of that.”
The third sign that something has gone wrong in Lac-Mégantic is the ribbon. Blue and green with a small red heart on its left edge and a “Support Lac-Mégantic” to the right, it can be found in sticker form on shop windows and car bumpers. For some it’s a physical never-forget; for others, a symbol of solidarity and hope.
Christian Lafontaine doesn’t need a ribbon to remember. He’s been missing his brother for months. The last memory the 47-year-old has of his younger sibling is of Gaétan in the Musi-Café, rushing to find the mother of his two little girls, Joanie Turmel. As the train hit, Lafontaine and his wife, Mélanie Guérard, ran out the front door, past their friends and family. “They were like mummies, frozen in panic,” says Lafontaine. “Now, of course, I ask myself ‘How could I possibly not have screamed at everyone else to get out?’ It all happened so fast.” Immediately following the explosion, the family’s excavation company-Lafontaine & Fils Inc.-committed equipment and manpower to containing the oil, then to combing the downtown’s remains for the dead. Gaétan and Joanie’s bodies were discovered within sight of each other.
Rebirth will mean different things to different people, but one thing is certain: the Méganticois and the trains are forever linked. Forged by industry and cemented by tragedy, the relationship with railway transportation provides Lac-Mégantic with much of its economy. There is, however, talk of focusing on tourism, capitalizing on the outside world’s sudden interest in what remains, despite everything, a picturesque layering of tree, mountain and lake.