July 14, 2013

In Lac-Megantic, 'the train from hell'

Loaded with oil, the unmanned freight train turned into a runaway death machine, that exploded into a conflagration that killed nearly 1 percent of the town's population.

By DAVID CRARY and SEAN FARRELL/The Associated Press

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Lise Doyon, Jeannot Labrecque
click image to enlarge

Lise Doyon, right, is comforted by her friend Jeannot Labrecque, as church bells chime 50 times Saturday in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic for the victims of the train explosion July 6. Doyon lost her son Kevin Roy and her daughter-in-law in the accident.

The Associated Press/The Canadian Press

click image to enlarge

Gilles Fluet is a 65-year-old retiree who left the Musi-Cafe moments before the first explosion last weekend.

The Associated Press

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Another victim was Guy Bolduc, a father of two children who was one of a pair of musicians performing at the Musi-Cafe. The other performer, Yvan Ricard, had taken a cigarette break outdoors when the inferno broke out, and he escaped unharmed.

"The last words he said to me were, 'Yvan, I really like playing with you. We have so much fun together,"' Ricard told the television network TVA.

Among those spared by quirks of fate was the cafe's manager, Sophie L'Heureux. She told reporters she went home around 9:30 that Friday evening, planned to return after a nap but overslept. Three of her employees are among those presumed dead, along with many of her loyal customers.

Nathalie Royer and David Isabel could have been among those doomed regulars, had it not been for home repairs they planned for later Saturday morning. The couple, both 45, left the cafe shortly after 1 a.m., with Isabel telling Royer to forgo one more drink with their friends because they had to get up early.

They decided to leave their car parked outside the bar and started to make their way home on foot. They ran when they spotted the train; Royer lost a shoe, stumbled, and suffered a burn on her arm, according to her mother, Louisette Nadeau.

"The people that died there -- it's a lot, because we're a little town," Nadeau said. "There's almost none of them that we don't know."

The explosions and fire destroyed 30 buildings in all, including the public library that housed irreplaceable historical archives. Roughly 2,000 people -- a third of the populace -- were ordered to evacuate their homes, and the town's central business district was cordoned off throughout the week, keeping out journalists and townspeople while scores of police officers and other emergency responders searched for remains of victims and sought clues to aid a criminal investigation of the crash.

Several hundred of the evacuees took shelter at the local high school, under the care of the Canadian Red Cross and other agencies.

Red Cross spokeswoman Myriam Marotte said some of the first volunteers who arrived in the middle of the night to help organize the shelter were local residents who themselves had been ordered to evacuate their homes.

"They are very dedicated," said Marotte.

Cots arrived around 10 a.m. -- nine hours after the crash -- followed by an array of other supplies and services, ranging from pet care to psychological counseling.

"The most important thing was to listen to people," Marotte said. "Not knowing what's coming in the next hours and days is very difficult."

Adding to the grief and shock for townspeople were the circumstances of the crash. The train was loaded with a potentially dangerous cargo, yet transport regulations allowed it to be left unattended overnight in the town of Nantes, seven miles away on a stretch of track leading downhill to the center of Lac-Megantic.

The CEO of the railway's parent company, Ed Burkhardt, compounded local frustrations by waiting four days to visit the town and in the meantime suggesting that firefighters in Nantes may somehow have contributed to the runaway while fighting a small fire on the train late on Friday, July 5.

During a chaotic outdoor news conference Wednesday in Lac-Megantic, Burkhardt apologized, said he was devastated by the town's calamity, and disclosed that the train's engineer was now suspected of failing to properly apply the train's brakes before leaving it unattended.

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