Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Lac Megantic: What we lost in the fire

It was like a bomb going off.

Yannick looked at the pretty English girl, who was sitting across from him speaking the broken French she learned in high school. He would be speaking to many pretty English girls in the coming days, some from Canada, some from Atlanta or New York. Most who had never heard of Lac Megantic, the place Yannick had called home all his life.

Minutes before the crash, the popular bar owner had left the Musi-Café to get his daughter from the babysitter. Seconds later, his livelihood was incinerated. So were his friends, his staff who were like family. One wait staff member, 18, had just started working there three weeks before.

For years, his bar had been the epicentre of life in Megantic. Now it would be known as the epicentre of the worst rail disaster in Canadian history, a place the small town's young people can gone to die.

Musi-Café had been like Cheers -- Yannick knew the names of all his customer, he knew what they liked to drink and eat.

The television interviewer asked: Were there 40 people in the bar that night?

Yannick shook his head, his eyes glistening.

More, I'm sure, many more.

Andre was on the patio having a smoke. It was late, he was tired but he was waiting for his buddy, just out to get some air. He saw the light in the distance, a ball of fire coming right at him.

I got on my bike and pedalled as fast as I could. I knew nobody was getting out. But I went back and tried to help. There was nothing I could do.

Then he looked at the reporter from Toronto, a wry smile on his face.

I guess smoking saved my life.

Tom paid the taxi and opened the door to his woodland home. It had been an uneventful night for Tom, a regional engineer, working a job he'd done a million times in his long career. He turned off the lights and went to bed.

That's when the phone rang.

The next morning, reporters were swarming around his house, but he was hiding in the dark. He would have no comment but was said to be "beside himself".

Serge had been a volunteer firefighter all his life. He took pride in protecting his community. That night, he and his brigade put out a locomotive fire in a small town near Lac Megantic. The scene secure, they handed it over to an employee of MMA, the railroad, and headed for home.

We followed proper protocol. We had done everything right, as per procedure. I just can't explain what happened.

A mother in Montreal had agreed to take her little grandkids so her son and girlfriend could have a much needed night out. All their friends were getting together at the café for a bit of a blow out. A birthday celebration.

She learned of the crash from the mother of another person at the party. There would be no more birthdays for the parents of these small children.

I don't know how they can live with themselves. I am so angry. I have no son now. And my grandchildren have no parents. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.

A crusty old soul, Edward had been a railway man all his life. An old man now with a distinct shuffle, it took him minutes to answer the telephone.

Sir, we don't know what happened. The locomotive had a fire and the fire department put it out. Then it just started sliding down the track, gathering steam towards the Musi-Café.

Edward lit a cigarette.

Was there anyone with the train at the time?

No sir.

Jesus. Get our p.r. guys down there. We've got to do something to make this right.

In all the decades of moving goods, Edward had seen his share of accidents and mistakes. He knew that corners had been cut but that his rail line had a reasonable safety record. Now the good name of MMA was tarnished forever. Like Exxon. Or BP.

It was a public relations disaster. Edward knew he'd be vilified, maybe even lynched, if he set foot in Lac Megantic. He decided to stay in Chicago and take press calls over the phone. That was where he would be most useful, he thought.

Six perspectives. One view.

Their lives would be changed forever.

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