Tragedy

07.15.13

‘It Was Like Hiroshima’: A Tour Through the Quebec Town Destroyed by a Runaway Train

In tiny Lac-Megantic, everyone knows someone who was killed when the oil train went off the rails. Christine Pelisek visits the charred town—and talks to police about the criminal investigation.

If the wreck happened some 10 miles away, across the Maine border, it would have been on the front page of every American newspaper for days.

“It was like Hiroshima,” says Lt. Michel Brunet, who works with the Sûreté du Québec, the province’s police force. “It was the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen. It was like a yellow mushroom cloud.”

Even now, just over a week after a runaway train transporting crude oil jumped the tracks in the middle of the night and leveled the heart of the tiny, picturesque village Lac-Megantic, the air is still thick with the smell of smoke.

At the site of the wreck, burned and black trees pocket the landscape and a 12-foot high chain-link fenced covered with black tarp surrounds the perimeter, a bleak reminder of the catastrophe that killed at least 50 people and gutted a popular music café, a bakery, a jewelry store, more than 40 houses, the local library and town archives that housed 100 pieces of art and thousands of books, and one of the village’s two funeral homes. The other funeral home is not in operation because it is behind the gargantuan fence and considered part of the red zone.

At least five of the train’s cars, owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company, exploded, spraying fire and petroleum droplets into the air.

“There was a wave of petroleum three or four feet high that caught on fire,” Brunet adds. “It was like a tsunami. It was a wave of fire. It burned so hot there’s no more asphalt on the street. There are only the foundations and nothing else.”

So far, 35 victims have been discovered. Only eight have been identified.

Within the first day, police received over 4,000 calls for people missing. “We had to cross-check because relatives called,” Brunet says. “We went down to 1,000 on Monday. On Wednesday we were able to say that we were pretty sure 50 people are missing.”

Before July 6 Lac-Megantic was known for its rolling green mountains, pretty wood cottages, trout fishing, and as the gateway to the Astro Lab, the most powerful observatory in Canada. Today scorched railway cars remain in the center of the town, lying mangled beside the track reminiscent of piled ash left from a burning fireplace.

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FranÁois Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images, AFP
‘It took her four or five days to calm down.’

“We will be known for the disaster now,” says 55-year-old Jacques Lachance, who grew up down the street from the town center. Like most everyone else in this picturesque town, Lachance has been personally affected by the tragedy.

“I know personally 12 or 15 people who died,” he said. “We all know each other. It’s going to be sad for a long time.”

Lachance’s sister and her husband narrowly escaped the explosion. Her home was on Boulevard de Veterans, directly behind the area that was first hit, and she watched out of her window as blue flames rolled toward her home. “She left within 40 seconds,” said Lachance. “She had no shoes, no purse, no wallet, and no cell phone. She was sure the whole downtown would burn. It took her four or five days to calm down.” 

Lachance’s sister, who lost her home, turned out to be one of the lucky ones. On Saturday afternoon as a contingent of reporters gathered next to the train tracks for their daily body count update, 48-year-old Christiane Mercier was busily weeding the tomato and cucumber plants inside a small greenhouse attached to her former dwelling, which is less than a block away from the devastation. “It’s my happy place,” she says.

Mercier says her 23-year-old daughter, Marie Anne, was living in the apartment building that was believed to be the first hit by the runaway train. “I am still in shock,” she says. Mercier is one of many family members who believe their loved ones perished in the blast but whose remains have not been identified by the coroner. Mercier says she gave a blood sample last Monday but still has not received a confirmation yet.

“She’s still on the list of missing, but there is no way she would have survived,” says Mercier as she takes a swig of a beer.

Lac-Megantic
Christine Pelisek

“I almost lost my daughter,” adds Pierre L’Heureux who is sitting with Mercier. L’Heureux’s daughter Sophie was the manager of the popular Muse Café, which incurred the biggest loss of life that night. L’Heureux says his daughter was scheduled to be at the club at midnight but took a nap and slept through her alarm. “She was lucky,” he said. Some of his friends were not. “I had friends who died there,” he says sadly as he begins to rifle off their names. “My daughter as well lost two employees and some of her friends.” 

L’Heureux and Mercier are among a growing contingent of locals who are becoming impatient with the lack of answers. “It is unbelievable a train would take off on its own with no surveillance or supervision,” says Mercier. “It’s a criminal matter. It’s negligence.”

“It won’t pass here again,” says L’Heureux angrily about the train. “They can bypass the town.”

On Saturday, residents and supporters flocked to Sainte-Agnes, near the town center, where a public memorial was set up inside the parish. Bouquets of flowers, teddy bears, and a Batman doll sat near portraits of the deceased. A framed photo of 18-year-old Elodie Turcotte wearing a blue ball gown rested close by a single running shoe with a pink stripe that held a photo of a pretty young blonde woman, with a message that read: “I’m happy they found you but unhappy that you left us so soon.”

Brightly colored paper hearts were placed on large boards next to blue and white candles as mourners stopped inside to pay their respects on the one-week anniversary of the tragedy. “Au revoir,” read one message to a Little League coach. “I love you Marie-France,” read another.

Outside Sainte-Agnes, a large crowd of mourners stood at noon as the bells chimed 50 times in eight-second intervals in memory of the lost victims. After the bells rang, 12 white doves were released from the steps of the 100-year-old church as people held hands and cried.

Meanwhile, says Brunet, the police are launching a massive criminal probe into the explosion. Brunet says that so far they have spoken to 80 witnesses and are poring over some video of the crash and its aftermath.

It is too early, says Brunet, to tell if anyone will be held accountable for the explosion. “We have some evidence so far but we have to prove it was intentional,” says Brunet.  “It is not sabotage. It could be criminal negligence but it has to be proven.”

“There are weeks of investigation to be done,” he added. “We will be on the scene for a month. Every piece of debris will be examined. We need to know the exact sequence of events.”