It was like nothing Josh Bachelder had ever seen.

Bachelder, a Phillips firefighter for 12 years, was one of the firefighters from Maine who traveled to Lac-Megantic, Quebec, early Saturday morning to fight a blazing fire resulting from a tanker derailment a few hours earlier.

“We got called at 4:30 a.m. and there was no actual plan when we were rolling in,” Bachelder said in a phone interview Sunday morning. “It was about three blocks long. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The disaster began about 1:30 a.m. Saturday when a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train carrying at least 2 million gallons of oil rolled downhill toward downtown Lac-Megantic, eventually derailing and exploding, sending a giant fireball into the air and leveling a number of downtown businesses. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated, at least five people were killed and many are reported missing. According to The Associated Press, a large but undetermined amount of fuel spilled into the Chaudiere River.

Bachelder said an “all-tone call” was sent out throughout Franklin County and that it was up to individuals to decide whether they could make the trip.

“One guy called me and said he wanted to go, and I said I’d go with him,” Bachelder said.

All they were told was that there was a fire in the downtown area of Lac-Megantic. Bachelder said there was word of a possible train derailment, but nothing was certain during the drive north.

When they got there, Bachelder said, they were still a distance away from the scene of the fire, as Canadian firefighters had set up a perimeter by then. Bachelder said he was worried about the possibility of another explosion.

“We didn’t really know what was going on until we got to the scene. We couldn’t see a lot because of where we were positioned,” he said.

Bachelder said he returned to Phillips between 7 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

“If they needed me today, I’d go again,” Bachelder said.

Tim Hardy, the Farmington Fire Department deputy chief as well as Franklin County’s emergency management director for the last nine years, was responsible for coordinating the various Maine fire crews.

“It’s just devastation in the lower part of town,” he said. “It looks like a war zone.”

Hardy got a call from Border Patrol and U.S. Customs requesting additional help from Franklin County. He was told the accident involved multiple railroad cars, but he learned little else at first.

“The whole town up there was without power and we had very basic phone service,” he said. “We were getting information from border customs.”

Hardy said when his crew members got there, they were assigned to put the pumpers down toward the lake next to the town and lay hose to help pour water on unexploded tankers to cool them down. Hardy said the heat and humidity made it difficult for fire crews, but plenty of water and food were available.

“The Canadian crews kept rotating people out that were on the main streets,” Hardy said.

Hardy said the Farmington crew got back late Saturday night.

“I explained to (the Canadians) that … later on during the recovery they could contact us if they needed additional resources,” he said.

Hardy said in 35 years in Farmington he’s never seen anything of this scale and magnitude and doesn’t expect to again.

“I’ve been to a lot of different locations and incidents, and they’ve never come close to this size and magnitude of damage,” he said.

According to Phillips Fire Chief James Gould, Phillips sent one pumper tanker and two crew members to Quebec – Bachelder and Paul Hudson – to help deal with the catastrophe. Gould said the Phillips crew was on standby to return on Sunday and that crew members who stayed in Maine helped cover the various towns that had sent coverage up north.

Jesse Scardina can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

jscardina@mainetoday.com