Lac Mégantic Tragedy: How Could This Have Happened

As intense debate over the rail accident and its ramifications swirls furiously, those who survived remember the first moments, where there was only pure terror.

The Musi-Café in Lac-Mégantic was always the sort of place where people liked to gather on a summer night. The music was good, the food hit the spot, and the taps ran 25 brands of draft beer. Three years ago, when he was 32, the club’s owner, Yannick Gagné, got tired of leasing, bought the building and doubled the club’s floor space in time for its 10th anniversary. Friday, July 5, seemed like another good day. At lunch Gagné had his photo taken with Christian Paradis, the federal industry minister, who happened to be in town. Later, crowds gathered for two different birthday parties.

The place was at its capacity of around 180 for dinner, but started to quiet down later in the evening. “It was a beautiful evening, but the place wasn’t completely packed,” Gagné said later. He went home shortly after midnight. There were perhaps 50 people still inside and another 30 on the patio. When he got home, Gagné emailed his pregnant wife, 23-year old Lisandra Arencibia Tamayo, telling her she should stop collecting the cover charge at the door and join him at their home less than 700 m from the Musi-Café. Tamayo arrived, fell asleep on the couch—and minutes later, they heard an explosion.

That fireball was only the first of many as a pretty summer night turned to hell. A 72-car train with five locomotives had rolled downhill, unattended, from Nantes, the next town up the road. Each of the tanker cars held tens of thousands of litres of light crude oil. By the time the train rolled into Lac-Mégantic with nobody aboard it was moving far faster than regulation speed. When the track drew a gentle leftward curve in the centre of the little town of 6,000, only the lead locomotive negotiated the turn. The rest of the train buckled, jumped the tracks, then burst into flames. The titanic explosions would continue for hours. Fire crews would take more than two days to extinguish the last flames. Long before the fire was out, the centre of Lac-Mégantic was a charred dead zone stretching across blocks. At press time, 15 deaths were confirmed, but about 50 more were missing, known to have been near the train when it derailed, and do not appear to have survived. At mid-week, 14 investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada were poring methodically over the crash site and the 12 km of track separating Nantes from Lac-Mégantic. They will take weeks or months to determine the cause of the accident. But already there were questions. Why were Nantes firefighters called in just before midnight to extinguish a fire on the train? Why did an employee of the train’s owner, the troubled Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), leave the train after the fire was extinguished? Why was the train left on the main line instead of on a siding where it would have rolled only a short distance before stopping? What happened to its brakes?

On Tuesday, the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, dropped a big hint by declaring it had launched a criminal investigation. But SQ spokesmen said the force was a long way from laying charges. Beyond the tragedy and the mystery there is a larger debate. Because the train was carrying petroleum, from North Dakota’s immense Bakken shale formation en route to an Irving refinery in New Brunswick, there is intense debate over the accident’s ramifications for petroleum development and transport.

But in the first moments, as one tank car after another went up in a tower of flame, there was only terror.

Watching at home, trying to comprehend, Yannick Gagné shouted “Fire” to wake up his wife and two children before running outside wearing only jeans and sandals. Neighbours were already outside telling him there had been an explosion with toxic materials. “They said: ‘Get your family and get out.’ ” Just as he grabbed his cellphone to call the restaurant, a waitress was already calling him.

“She was screaming and running. ‘Downtown is on fire. Your café is burning. There are so many people here,’ ” Gagné said of the brief telephone call. Gagné tried to drive to the Musi-Café to help, but couldn’t get close. “There was a wall of fire—200 or 300 feet high,” he says. “There was nothing, nothing, nothing. The kids were crying. I was crying too.”

He recounted what he had heard in the first couple of days after the crash, from friends and staff who survived. “Some people thought, ‘Everything is shaking and we’re going outside,’ ” he said. “Others thought they would hide inside—maybe under a table—thinking it was an earthquake.” The ones who stayed inside died.

As for the two musicians who were providing the night’s entertainment, they had just finished their set. Yvon Ricard went outside for a smoke. Guy Bolduc went to the bar to get a beer. Only Ricard survived. The scale of destruction was vast, its distribution random. “My residence is here,” Daniel Larochelle told a reporter on Monday, pointing to an aerial photo on his iPad of a street just outside the zone of total destruction. His finger moved a short distance. “My law office is here.” Or rather, it used to be.

Larochelle, 49, a jack-of-all-trades lawyer from Quebec City who has lived in Lac-Mégantic for 15 years, scrolled his iPad to another photo of ashes and devastation. He pointed to what was once a broad two-storey building along rue Frontenac, the main commercial strip of downtown Lac-Mégantic. A hair salon and pedicure shop shared the building’s commercial space with Larochelle’s law office. All were destroyed. “The vault and the chimney,” he said. “That’s all that’s left.” Upstairs from the offices and shops were four apartments. Nobody has heard from the people who lived there. “The train is older than the town,” Larochelle said, leaning back in a chair on the back deck of a bed and breakfast where he was staying after fleeing home. “The train brought this town into the world.” But the train that roared past his house in the early hours of July 6 sounded like none he had ever heard.

“Everything started to shake in my house,” he said. He went to the window, where “I saw a train passing like a TGV,” a European high-speed rail, rolling at perhaps double the normal speed. In the time it took him to dress and leave his house, the train had hopped the rail and parts of it had exploded. There was fire everywhere. “I saw my building”—the one containing his law office—“like a fireball.” From nearby, probably the Musi-Café, “I heard cries. Death cries. ‘Save yourself.’ ‘Aiiiee.’ ”

Larochelle’s secretary, he learned later, had been at the Musi-Café. She decided to call it a night minutes before the train derailed. Her car had just crossed the train tracks when the train passed behind her and jumped the rails.

Karine Blanchette had a similar close call. A server at the Musi-Café, she worked a long day shift on Friday and was contemplating returning in the evening to meet a friend for a drink. Her friend called to say she was tired and might head home early. Blanchette wasn’t sure if it was worthwhile to stop by, so she made a deal with herself as she neared the Musi-Café shortly before 1 a.m. If she found parking right out in front, she’d go inside. If there wasn’t, she’d go home.

There was no room to park. Blanchette kept driving. She heard the first explosion behind her. She pulled over and tried to call the Musi-Café, then the friend she was supposed to meet. She then tried to call Maude Verreault, her best friend, a fellow waitress at the Musi-Café who was working that night. There was no answer at any of the numbers she called. Blanchette started to panic.

Soon afterwards, she got word from Verreault. She was outside smoking a cigarette when the explosion went off. “Smoking kills,” Blanchette says. “But this night, smoking saved her life.”

Three of the bar’s waitresses are among the missing. Two survived. Blanchette met up later at Verreault’s home. From a distance, they watched the fire burn down all that was the downtown core.

As the fire spread, Daniel Larochelle ran back home, grabbed his car keys, credit cards and phone, raced around back to wake the neighbours in their sublet apartment, and wandered aimlessly to the Parc de la Croix Lumineuse, the highest point in town, about a kilometre south of the crash site. There dozens of Lac-Mégantic residents convened, watched the growing fire, and anxiously texted loved ones searching for news. “At about 3:30 or 4 a.m., a train car blew up,” he said. “The night became as bright as day. We felt the heat—and we were a long way away. That’s when we started to understand the scale of what had happened.”

The first explosions woke Johanne Denault and André Malhiot from bed in their home on rue Laviolette, 600 m north of the crash site. They thought the Sacré-Coeur school a block away might be burning. In fact the fire was five times further away. When the two went outside, “the heat was like a campfire,” Denault said. On Sunday, the two stood on Laval Street, watching television reporters do their news stand-ups for the nightly news. At the nearby hospital where Denault works, she said, staff had been telling relatives of missing residents to return with their lost loved ones’ toothbrushes, to simplify DNA identification of remains.

The stretch of Laval Street where Denault and Malhiot spoke to reporters had become an informal meeting place for residents and neighbours from surrounding communities as an odd interim reality settled on the town. Hundreds of SQ officers patrolled the area and settled in at hotels as far away as Sherbrooke, 100 km to the west. A large beige and brown van parked outside the co-op home store and became the provincial police force’s mobile headquarters. Two blocks up from the train wreck, police cordoned off Laval Street and television crews set up semi-permanent camera positions where reporters would spend days waiting for news. Every few hours somebody with a title would step up to a microphone in the middle of the street to deliver a news conference. One of the most frequent speakers was Colette Roy-Laroche, who was beginning her 12th and final year as the town’s mayor.

Until Friday night, a slow decline in heavy industry in the region had been her biggest headache. “Since we’re in a slowdown, our challenge—I should say the challenge we had, the one we were attacking—was to diversify our economy and go look for new industry,” she said. Now just about everything she was working on has been wiped out. “Many things have fallen apart.”

The residents of Lac-Mégantic—resilient and astoundingly good-humoured, in many cases, given that almost everyone knew somebody who had died—were slowly trying to piece a few things together. Bernard Théberge had gone to the Musi-Café on Friday night to enjoy some Blanche de Chambly beer with a dozen of his friends. He was standing out on the patio having a smoke when he heard the train and then the explosion. He grabbed his bicycle and escaped. Two days later, bandages covered the second-degree burns on Théberge’s right arm, from the elbow down to his fingers.

Théberge was outside the Polyvalente Montignac secondary school, which was serving as the town’s main emergency shelter. The high school’s weight room was converted into a clothing donation office. The chin-up bar held dozens of men’s collared shirts on metal hangers. Atop the treadmills were stacks of women’s pants.

Dennis Drainville, the Anglican bishop of Quebec, folded clothes as the donations continued to pour in. “I got a phone call saying, ‘Did you know your entire parish of Lac-Mégantic has just totally been blown up?’ ” Drainville said. He came to town right away. “A humanitarian crisis like this demands that you engage immediately. People need food. People need shelter. People need clothes. And people need to know that you care.”

Inevitably there was anger, much of it directed at the MMA rail company, which had no visible representative in the town. Many residents were astonished to learn that the twice-daily trains through the middle of the business district had often included such dangerous cargo. Raymond Lafontaine is one of the most prominent businessmen in the Eastern Townships, a prominent Lac-Mégantic developer with silver hair and a rumbling baritone. On Friday, his family celebrated the 40th birthday of his daughter-in-law, Josée. After dinner, several in the party went into town for a drink. Lafontaine believes the explosion claimed Josée’s life, as well as that of his son, Gaëtan, and another daughter-in-law, Karine.

In the face of the family tragedy, Lafontaine is vocal in his disgust with the train company. “In 2013, there is a train that is passing by without a conductor. That makes no sense. That can’t be true,” he said. “It wasn’t an accident. It was negligence. It was negligence from our government who make laws that don’t respect us.”

Lafontaine stands tall and holds back tears in his eyes. “You have three kids who die. What do you do? You scream as loud as you can: ‘That’s enough,’ ” he said. “In 2013, we should be able to create tracks that are specially made for dangerous products, that don’t pollute our rivers, that don’t pollute our people.

“A father should never outlive his son,” he added, lowering his voice close to a whisper. “This is my wake-up call.”

While the human remains are found and the authorities break the dreaded news to the bereaved, at least two big questions remain: How did this happen? And what does it mean for rail transport of petroleum in Canada? Answering the first question is, in large measure, the work of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), an independent agency created by an act of Parliament in 1990 when Brian Mulroney was prime minister. A TSB team, now numbering 14 veteran investigators, has been at Lac-Mégantic since hours after the first explosion. The team is led by Don Ross, whose rail career began at CN Rail’s maintenance shops in Sydney, N.S., in 1975.

There is no clock ticking on Ross’s investigation. It will certainly take weeks, probably months. But in its first three days the investigation generated answers and new questions in equal measure. The biggest is the cause, and the after-effects, of a fire that broke out at just before midnight on Friday night, about 50 minutes after the train stopped at Nantes.

It took only about 10 minutes for the fire to be extinguished. An MMA employee was on hand when Nantes firefighters shut the train’s engine down. Then everyone went home, and at four minutes before 1 a.m., the unattended train started to roll down a gentle 1.2 per cent grade toward Lac-Mégantic. It took only 18 minutes for the train to close the distance between the two towns. There were no signals or track circuits to warn anyone of an immense runaway train gathering tremendous speed. If some malevolent god had wanted to shatter the centre of Lac-Mégantic, the largest town in the Eastern Townships’ sprawling and sparsely populated MRC du Granit—roughly, Granite County—he could not have done better than to park a phantom train up the hill in Nantes and then give it a little nudge.

Much of Ross’s investigation will centre on the role of MMA, which last year was involved in 36.1 accidents per million miles travelled, compared to a U.S. industry average of 14.6 accidents per million miles. The company’s CEO, Edward Burkhardt, is a long-time advocate of remote-controlled trains and one-person crews. In recent months, Lac-Mégantic taxi drivers who were used to taking two conductors home from a train parked at Nantes had grown used to collecting only one. In media interviews, Burkhardt suggested the fire crew had somehow disabled the train’s brakes. Ross and his TSB team are paying close attention to the brakes in their investigation.

Beyond the details of the accident itself, there is the question of rail safety, a federal jurisdiction in Canada. And there is the almost mystical ability of the cargo—light crude petroleum—to stir up political debates. As is often the case, it fell to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to kick off the political debate with a visit to Lac-Mégantic on Saturday. “We are seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail, and there are attendant dangers involved in that,” said Mulcair. “And at the same time, the Conservative government is cutting transport safety in Canada, cutting back the budgets in that area. When we have a discussion about these things in the coming months or years, let’s remember this day. We are watching a magnificent little village being burned to the ground by toxic products that were being transported through it,” Mulcair said.

Both Conservatives and Liberals were quick to blame Mulcair for politicizing tragedy. On Twitter, former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae called the comments “a new low.” Both of Stephen Harper’s principal spokesmen joined in, with press secretary Carl Vallée wishing the NDP leader “honte” (shame) and communications director Andrew MacDougall calling the remarks “grossly inappropriate.”

When Transport Minister Denis Lebel visited Lac-Mégantic on Monday, his remarks amounted to an extended rebuttal of Mulcair’s claims. “Safety is Transport Canada’s top priority,” he said. “Our government has not cut any inspectors, ” he said, adding that while “we do not yet know the cause of this tragic derailment . . . we do know that a Transport Canada inspector inspected the locomotive involved in this incident just the day before it happened, on July 5, and found no deficiencies.”

But the NDP is not backing down. On Tuesday the Opposition put out a news release noting that funding for rail safety has been cut from $36.9 million in 2012-13 to $33.8 million in the 2013-14 estimates. The department does not appear to have cut inspectors, but total full-time-equivalent staff in rail safety, set at 215 in the department’s 2011 report on plans and priorities, was reduced to 204 in the 2013 report.

Meanwhile the amount of inspecting to do has increased radically: from 500 carloads of crude oil transported in Canada in 2009, the Canadian Railway Association expects the figure to hit 140,000 carloads this year, a 28,000 per cent increase in four years.

As for Lebel’s assertion that “the locomotive” was inspected the day before the Lac-Mégantic disaster, one of his own departmental officials contradicted him a day later. In a briefing for reporters in Ottawa, Luc Bourdon, Transport Canada’s director-general for rail safety, said the tank cars were inspected on Friday but that “the locomotives weren’t there, because in a rail yard the coupling had not yet been done.” (After the contradiction came to light, Lebel’s office said he had been given inaccurate terminology by his departmental officials.)

The broader debate, in a country whose government has made the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects national priorities, is how much oil should be rolling over rails at all. The tragedy of Lac-Mégantic can and will be used as fodder for every side of that debate. Some will argue pipelines are a better risk than trains. Others will say there is no safe transport option. The policy debate will only heat up as the initial shock and grief over the human loss begins to fade.

Recovering his calm and waiting for calls from insurance companies at a bed and breakfast on the shore of Mégantic Lake, Daniel Larochelle figured nothing will really change. “They had a spill a month ago and nobody lifted a finger,” he said, referring to 13,000 litres of diesel that spilled out of an MMA train in nearby Frontenac in June. “Nobody. Nobody. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s Alberta and British Columbia that run this country these days.”

Maclean's July 22, 2013