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Emergency service crews at work in the blast and fire zone of Lac-Mégantic. Photo: Sureté du Québec
Emergency service crews at work in the blast and fire zone of Lac-Mégantic. Photo: Sureté du Québec

On the scene of Lac-Megantic's tragic train wreck

All 50 people still missing after the explosive train wreck in Lac-Megantic, Quebec Saturday are now presumed dead. The Associated Press reports the CEO of the parent company that operates the train plans to meet with residents and the town's mayor today. He faced jeers when he visited the town yesterday.

NCPR's Brian Mann is in Lac-Megantic reporting for this station and NPR. He spoke Martha Foley this morning.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

(You can also hear Brian Mann reporting on this story for NPR's Morning Edition)

Martha Foley: Just a few minutes ago on NPR I heard you actually walking down the railroad tracks toward that little village. What are you seeing there?

Brian Mann: Well, you know, it really is a community that’s just had their heart punched right out of them. The train rolled down this grate and it was almost like a perfectly placed bomb that hit right down in the heart of the village.

I spoke yesterday with the local Catholic priest, his church is gone, the town library is gone, a lot of the collected memory records and documents are gone. People here are still just sort of trying to figure out what exactly remains and how to piece it together. And of course for the families of these 50 people, who are now presumed to be dead, it’s just the beginning of a grueling process of how to sort out where they go next.

MF: What’s the latest you’re hearing there? Is there any clarity on how this could happen?

BPM: Well, I think there’s not. I think there has been a series of sort of finger-pointing moments between the provincial government, between the federal government of Canada, over the regulation of trains.

The company has tried to point fingers in other directions. The railroad here is suggesting perhaps that this one engineer who has been suspended did not set enough hand brakes. But I think there are some big questions being raised now about the level of oversighting—this train laden with explosive material was left on a slope above the village the night before the accident. There had actually been a fire on board the train, there had been a problem.

After people had believed that the problem was resolved, they left this train unattended and walked away from it. All of that appears to be legal and okay according to regulations. But I think there is the beginning of a very long process in terms of the criminal investigation—the specifics of what went wrong here—but also the broader question of how these trains are regulated.

MF: You know as well as I do that freight routinely roll through many of our little North Country towns. And of course you get used to it. You hardly give them a thought. You stop at the crossing when they are going by, and they go by, and that’s it. So this feels closer than eastern Quebec to me. It feels like a local story to me. How like our towns does Lac Megantic strike you?

BPM: I think that you just hit the nail right on the head, Martha. Being here, this village—you know people speak French—but it feels very much like, maybe Massena or Ogdensburg, that kind of feel, of a community in terms of size and the layout, the way it fits into the lands and the pier. Kind of an industrial town, struggling a bit economically but still, you know, a beautiful place.

You know, as you say, it’s become very normal for many many years that these big trains do roll through the very heart of our villages. We take this for granted, and I do think that it raises some big questions not just here north of the border but also in the United States and New York and Vermont about the way that these trains operate.

There of course have been similar questions raised over time about trucks on the highways, and New York State police, for example, have cracked down on trucks that had inadequate braking systems on board. And so a lot of hazardous materials do move around through these communities and I think the trains after this event here will receive some more scrutiny in New York as well as up here.

MF: I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit here. What is your plan today?  I just read the AP copy that the CEO of the train company plans to meet with the town’s mayor today. What do you think you’ll be reporting on? What are people talking about there at this point?

BPM: There are some big questions left. One is to begin looking at this question of regulation and sort of the nuts and bolts of the rules—what rules were followed what rules were not, and how this was allowed to happen.

I’m also, having been on the ground for just a full day, I’m just trying to connect with more people. You know, one of the things that I try to do is just have real conversations with people, trying to read into their community a little bit, get their sense of what is happening. So this will be a day when I’ll really be able to catch my breath and really sit down and have some of those longer conversations.

And then I think another thing we’ll be looking at today will be some of the long-term recovery plans. You know we’ve seen big disasters in the North County, where flooding and other events—which are frankly much less devastating than this—the Ice Storm, not nearly as deadly, and yet we saw it took years to recover, years to rebuild. And so we’ll be looking at that, what are the building blocks going to be that bring this community back to life.

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