Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Lac-Megantic Disaster

Victim Genevieve Breton
What happened?
by Robert A. Waters

The normally quiet town of Lac-Megantic sits in Quebec, Canada.  Tracks from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway cut through the heart of the mostly French-speaking village.  With a population of 6,000 souls, life in Lac-Megantic rambled on like a slow-moving freight train.
Early Saturday morning, on July 6, many residents lay sleeping in their homes while others partied at the Music-Cafe Bar, about twenty yards from the rails.
It was then that an un-scheduled runaway train came barreling down the mountain.  Seventy-three tanker cars, all carrying oil, derailed in the middle of town.  Explosion after explosion rocked the village, and smoke, darker than the night, plumed into the sky.  With much of the town suddenly in flames, survival seemed to be a matter of luck.
Those in the bar suffered the worst of it.  Many died instantly.
In addition to the raging fires and toxic smoke, oil from the cars that hadn’t exploded spilled into the streets.  Thick, black crude began oozing into the nearby Claudiere River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence.
Local firefighters and police rushed to the scene, followed by investigators from the Quebec provincial police.  The Transportation Safety Board of Canada began an investigation.
A week after the disaster, thirty-seven bodies had been found.  Another thirteen were missing.  Thirty buildings in the historic business district had been destroyed.  The scene reminded many of bombed-out villages in wartime.  Hundreds of investigators scoured the scene for more victims, while others attempted to determine the cause of the disaster.
Officials from Rail World, Inc., the parent company that owns the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had been transporting oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick.  The cars had been parked seven miles away, when they suddenly began rolling downhill.  (Investigators said an engineer who had been responsible for setting the brakes took a short-cut and only set some, but not all.)
Within minutes, the runaway train hurtled toward Lac-Megantic.
While criminal charges will likely be filed, and issues of safety discussed, it’s important to remember the innocent victims of this horrific tragedy.  While space doesn’t allow me to even name them all, here is a brief bio of several who met death in all its sudden happenstance.
Genevieve Breton, an aspiring singer and college student, was getting ready to leave the Musi-Café Bar with her boyfriend when the building exploded in flames.  She was killed instantly.  Breton had appeared on Star Academe and was recording her first album.
Bianka Charest, 9, and Alyssa, 3, along with their mother, Talitha Coumi-Begnoche, were asleep in their apartment near the tracks when the train hit.  Three lives were randomly cut short.
And ninety-three-year-old Eliane Parenteau-Boulinger, who had owned a grocery store before retiring, was mowed down in her home near the tracks.
And the list of dead and missing goes on.  Many had been so badly mangled and burned that the coroner had to use DNA to identify them.  Relatives crowded into churches and the local school to mourn.
Lac-Megantic, a small village made up of people living normal lives, could never have foreseen a runaway train smashing their dreams away.  The town, and its residents, will never be the same.

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