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A painting in Lac-Megantic's St. Agnes Church by Louise Latulipe commemorates the oil train fire storm and the 47 people lost in the disaster.  Photo:  Brian Mann
A painting in Lac-Megantic's St. Agnes Church by Louise Latulipe commemorates the oil train fire storm and the 47 people lost in the disaster. Photo: Brian Mann

Quebec town struggles one year after oil train fire storm

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This weekend the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec is preparing to mark the one year anniversary since that deadly train derailment, when a U.S. tanker train exploded killing 47 people.

Brian Mann has been covering this story since last July when the disaster first occurred and he's back in Quebec today. He spoke with Martha Foley.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

We lost important people. We lost our town. We lost our spirit of the town. It's fragile
Martha Foley: Brian, first remind us what happened last July 6.

Brian Mann: An American owned oil-tanker train that had begun in North Carolina, carrying crude oil, was parked near Lac-Megantic when it rolled free in the middle of the night and eventually derailed and exploded right downtown. That blast that followed incinerated a huge area of the community center and just caused really terrible devastation.

I was talking yesterday to Andre Laflamme, who was a paramedic, and he was trying to evacuate people that night; he said the flame was so intense the rescue crews had to pull back.

Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village. Photo: Surete du Quebec
Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village. Photo: Surete du Quebec
Andre Laflamme: "It was crazy. I remember saying, like, hell must look like this," Laflamme recalled. "People didn't know what was happening. We tried our best. As firefighters we always want to save everybody. That night we could not. We're trained and we have some [equipment] and we have foam, but not for that kind of burning wall."

MF: He said, “hell must look like this…. A burning wall,” that is what first responders saw in their downtown. It’s horrible to imagine and really hard to imagine the scope of a fire like that and its effects. You arrived in Lac-Megantic yesterday. How does the town look? What are your first impressions there?

BM: Well, it’s really fascinating, Martha. You know, there has been a huge infusion of money here from the provincial government and also from the crown in Canada, in Ottawa. What’s happened is that the community has essentially built a new downtown that sits a short distance away from the contaminated remains of the downtown. This oil was laced with heavy metals, arsenic, copper and so it has been impossible for even the buildings that didn’t burn, impossible to use them again.

The challenge, and people here all talk about this, is that this new downtown that is being built, it’s brand new, it has this feeling right now of kind of lifelessness. I think people will be working to bring some kind of heart to it, bring it alive, but right now there is this very strange kind of eerie juxtaposition of this ruined downtown that is abandoned and closed off, sitting next to this new downtown that really looks like it was kind of unpacked out of a box overnight.

MF: Yeah, it has just been a year. Have you had a chance to talk to some of the local people about this effort to rebuild and restart their lives? What are they saying?

BM: I think the person I spoke to yesterday who captured all of this best is Julie Byrns. She’s lived here in Lac-Megantic her whole life and lost her cousin in the disaster.

Julie Byrns: "It's not easy. We lost important people. We lost our town. We lost our spirit of the town. It's fragile," she said.

MF: You can only imagine. Finally Brian, this Lac-Megantic disaster opened our eyes to the dangers of these trains and to the fact that these same sorts of trains travel along the railroads all over our country, including across the North Country. What’s been the response policy-wise to some of the local concerns that have developed?

BM: This is a very fascinating, very local disaster that also has had international ramifications. I saw one headline here in Canada that said, “Lac-Megantic opened all of our eyes,” and you have seen a very strong policy response in Canada where there are now much stricter rules in place about the shipment of oil and these tankers. There’s a specific policy phasing out these DOT-111 tankers that experts say are not safe for this kind of hazardous material.

In the US, the reform effort has moved more slowly. There’s much more pushback from the oil industry and from the rail transport industry and still more debate in Washington over how far these changes should go.

I should say that in New York State, there has been more aggressive movement, more pressure on those rail cars that move through the North Country, move down the Champlain Valley to Albany, from the Cuomo administration, to really begin introducing safer tanker cars. And so this is a debate that still, a year later—I think in the US especially—is still just getting underway.


NCPR's Brian Mann will be in Lac Megantic through the weekend for commemoration ceremonies. We'll hear his reports on All Things Considered this afternoon and Morning Edition on Sunday and again on the Eight O'clock Hour Monday morning.

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