Lac-Mégantic Tragedy | The Town is Gone
In the early-morning hours of July 6, 2013, a train carrying more than 10,000 tons of crude oil derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, just across the Maine border. What happened in that moment claimed the lives of 47 people and changed the town forever. The aftershocks continue to be felt everywhere in New England where freight cars rumble past.
It was the tail end of the first warm day of summer.
And it was a Friday, the crowd was young, the weekend was just ahead–and on the outside terrace of the Musi-Cafe on rue Frontenac in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, even as Friday turned to Saturday, there was still not an empty table.
Or inside, either, where singer/guitarists Guy Bolduc and Yvon Ricard, both now in their forties, hadn’t been off the stage since 9:30. The two, who had gotten their starts in the town’s more honky-tonk bars two decades before and were loved here now as native sons, were playing together tonight for the first time in years. They’d begun the night with a love song–“Rosie” (“Oh Rosie, tu est blanc / Tes yeux m’eclairent / De t’avoir eu un instant / j’etais tellement fier …”), a Quebecois favorite–then moved to the dance tunes that had kept the floor filled for most of the past three hours.
“A perfect evening,” Karine Blanchette, one of the waitresses, would remember later. “Everyone was floating.”
It was a local crowd. There was Stephane Bolduc’s birthday group–he was 37, a widely loved car salesman, nearly destroyed by bereavement only two years before, there tonight with his new girlfriend, Karine Champagne; Genevieve Breton, 28, a green-eyed blonde who “sang every hour of the day,” had found brief fame on Star Academie, Quebec’s version of American Idol, and was now working in a jewelry store down the street; Gaetan LaFontaine, his two brothers, his wife Joanie Turmel, and Joanie’s aunt Diane Bizier, also there to celebrate a birthday; Natachat Gaudreau, 41, a single mother who worked for the town’s school board, and was lately talking of opening a hostel; Mathieu Pelletier, 29, a local math teacher, hockey coach, and father of a 3-year-old. And a secretary, an art teacher, a drummer; a French teacher and a daycare worker out tonight on their first date; a pharmacy worker, a stonecutter, a steeplejack, a second daycare worker; two waitresses, at least three students, and several employees of the particleboard factory and door manufacturer in town.
At 10 minutes after 1:00 in the morning–July 6 of last year–the two musicians announced to the crowd that they’d be taking a half-hour break. Guy Bolduc looked briefly at his old friend as the two left the stage together: “Man, it’s fun to play with you.” Then he moved off toward the bar.
More than two hours earlier, on a rail track in the village of Nantes, seven miles northwest, Thomas Harding, an engineer for the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MM&A) Railway, was putting his train to bed for the night. It was a big train: five locomotives and a car just behind to house the radio-control equipment, followed by a loaded boxcar and 72 carbon-steel tanker cars, each carrying 30,000 U.S. gallons of Class 3 petroleum crude–10,300 tons in all, nine-tenths of a mile front to back, bound for the Irving Oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick, roughly 300 miles east.
There were plenty of trains just like it–some as long as two miles–most of them coming from the same place: North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, where a boom in shale-oil production (the result of what has come to be known as “fracking”) has created a massive, nearly overnight run on rail freight. Roughly 400,000 carloads of crude were shipped last year on U.S. railroads, much of it through New England to refineries in Canada or the Northeast U.S.–up from fewer than 10,000 five years ago. Some 7,400 carloads went across the state of Maine alone–through Jackman, Greenville, Brownville Junction, and other small towns forming an east/west belt across the middle of the state. More than half of those carloads were transported behind MM&A locomotives headed east to Irving’s St. John refinery.
The tide of oil hadn’t gone unnoticed. Just a week before, on the night of June 27 in the central-Maine community of Fairfield, protesters had erected a large wood-framed sign–Stop Fracked Oil--across the tracks in the center of town, to block a train carrying nearly 100 carloads of crude to the same St. John refinery. Six of the group were arrested. “Our concern is [that] the rails aren’t safe,” one of them, a 64-year-old protester from Verona Island, told the press.
Tom Harding, as permitted by MM&A’s work rules, was the train’s only crew member that July night in Nantes. By the time he had parked it, shut down four of its five locomotives–the lead engine left on to keep pressure supplied to the air brakes–and applied hand brakes on what would later be claimed were 11 of the 72 tanker cars, it was probably around 10:45. His work done, he phoned a taxi to take him the seven miles to Lac-Megantic, where he had a room reserved for the night. As the cab pulled away, its driver would tell police later, the lead locomotive was spitting black smoke.
At 11:30, a 911 call was received: in Nantes, a passerby reporting fire in the train’s lead locomotive. The village fire department responded to the call, shut down the lead engine, extinguished the blaze, and then phoned to notify MM&A of what had taken place. Not long after midnight, two of the railway’s track maintenance crew arrived from Lac-Megantic. They confirmed that the train was secure. At a few minutes before 1:00, the firemen left the scene.
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