It’s still hard for Paul Deschambault to wrap his head around the devastation that hit Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a runaway train derailed last summer and six dozen tanker cars carrying crude oil exploded.

Lac-Megantic’s downtown was leveled, 47 people were killed, and the small, lakeside resort town still has hundreds of tons of contaminated soil to remove before it can even think about rebuilding. The Maine railway that operated the train has since filed for bankruptcy, which will limit the damages the town could seek to help with the recovery.

“For a small town of 5,900 people, this was a disaster of biblical proportions,” said Deschambault, who felt that he might be able to use his position as a past president of the Saco-Biddeford Rotary Club to help the town and its residents.

On Wednesday, Deschambault and members of a number of other Maine Rotary clubs will start packing cars and SUVs with 700 teddy bears – 600 for the children of Lac-Megantic and 100 for police and firefighters, to be used when they need to comfort a child. A small caravan to Lac-Megantic will head out from Saco Thursday morning, followed by another Friday afternoon. In addition, Deschambault and others will fan out to local stores in Canada to buy additional gifts, such as knit hats, blankets, puzzles and board games.

Deschambault said he realized what he could do after a September trip with a handful of other Rotarians to Quebec, trying to assess Lac-Megantic’s needs.

He spoke with the town’s fire chief, Denis Lauzon, who related talking to a 6-year-old and having to tell her that he and his fellow firefighters hadn’t yet found her parents’ bodies.

Deschambault replied that it might have been helpful to give the girl something that could provide a small measure of comfort, such as a teddy bear to hold, and Lauzon agreed.

What started as an effort to provide a teddy bear to each Lac-Megantic schoolchild up to sixth grade is now a full-scale Christmas rescue trip, Deschambault said, with more than $25,000 raised, five times the initial goal. The effort grew beyond Deschambault’s club to embrace the entire Rotary district that stretches from Damariscotta to Hampton, N.H.

The bears will be handed out at Lac-Magantic’s two elementary schools on Friday, and the other gifts will be distributed in a town church on Saturday, he said, with each child receiving five gifts.

He said the reason for doing some of the shopping for gifts in Canada has to do with border limits on the value of goods that can be taken into Canada as gifts, and because the Rotarians hope that spending about $15,000 in local stores will boost an economy where dozens of businesses were destroyed or closed.

“We’re going to be emptying their shelves,” Deschambault said.

Some of the money raised will also be donated to a local food pantry that many residents are turning to in an effort to keep food on the table, he said.

Lauzon, the Lac-Megantic fire chief, said the gifts will be a welcome bright spot in what promises to be a long winter.

Most parents tried to shield their children from news about the fire, he said, but the impact was so widespread, that was impossible.

“The parents suffer from the event and they transfer that to the kids,” he said. And now, with the initial shock over, many residents are daunted by what lies ahead. “It’s a lot of work,” Lauzon said, and most estimates are that it will take two years to remove the oil-contaminated soil.

Deschambault said Rotary clubs are known for their far-flung international work, so responding to something in Maine’s backyard is a little unusual.

“We normally do things in Uganda, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria,” he said. “Here we are doing this four or five hours away. But the people who live there are so traumatized by this.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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