When the buzz of bulldozers and construction workers quiets for the evening, there’s an uneasy calm in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The heart of town is still shut down as half burnt buildings stand eerily next to empty plots of land. One year later, the small Canadian town, 10 miles from the U.S. border, is fighting to rise from the ashes of the one of the worst rail disasters in modern history.
Karine Blanchette was driving when she saw a massive fireball in her rearview mirror. She said she's just now realizing what happened, and is still coming to terms with the night the "train from hell" rolled into town.
“It was just apocalyptic,” she remembered. “I thought, at this moment, OK, all of us will die.”
Shortly after midnight on July 6, 2013, a train with 72 tanker cars hauling almost 2 million gallons of volatile crude oil from North Dakota rolled out of control and careened into downtown Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. The train was unmanned and parked in a neighboring town when it sped downhill, accelerating to 63 miles an hour, derailing and exploding. Instantly, a calm summer night descended into chaos.
“I was in front of this disaster,” Blanchette said. “I just said no, it's impossible. I just want it stop now, rewind, and never happen.”
Blanchette worked as a waitress at Musi-Café, a popular restaurant in the center of town that quickly became a symbol of the tragedy. The late night spot sat right next to the train tracks and was filled with people the night of the derailment.
She was supposed to switch shifts with a waitress working in the club that night. “[I] think she died in my place,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “So, it’s strange to talk about.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the scene as a “war zone.” Six city blocks were completely destroyed. The inferno that engulfed the downtown was so big, it could be seen from space.
The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson/AP
Yannick Gagné, owner of the Musi-Café, said 30 of the 47 people who died were his friends and employees enjoying an evening at his restaurant.
“It’s so small here [that] the tragedy is so big,” Gagné said. “Everyone knows everyone here.”
Almost a year later, the 35-year-old father of three is not just trying to rebuild his café, but also his life.
Gagné said he had just finished a two-year-long renovation of his restaurant when the train struck it.
“It is not our fault, we were doing business,” he said. “Everything was going fine and now we have to rebuild.”
Although construction is underway at the new location, Gagné said he’s not sure if he’ll have enough money to complete the project.
Dozens of other businesses are also still closed and many people are still suffering from trauma. Meanwhile, the environmental cleanup alone could cost $200 million, as more than one million gallons of crude oil spilled into the streets and nearby lake.
“This was like driving into hell. And it was,” said Tim Pellerin, a professional firefighter for 35 years. “It was nothing comparable. It was like 9/11. This was their 9/11 for Canada.”
Pellerin, who leads the volunteer fire force in neighboring Rangeley, Maine, was called in to respond to the disaster.
“Nobody would be set up to handle a disaster of that proportion," Pellerin said. "We don't have the equipment, the money, no fire department does."
The train tracks that snake through Lac-Mégantic were not built to transport hazardous material. But in the last four years crude shipments on Canadian railroads have skyrocketed, from fewer than 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 – an increase of almost 32,000 percent. This sharp rise in traffic has been fuelled by an oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken fields – where the oil that exploded in Lac-Mégantic was coming from. And while crude oil doesn’t usually readily ignite, Canada’s transportation agency concluded that the oil in the Lac-Mégantic train was far more flammable and improperly classified.
This volatility could be true of all Bakken crude, the U.S. Department of Transportation warned in a safety alert.
“This frack oil, because of the way they get it out of the ground is very highly volatile. It has a much higher flammability rate” said Pellerin, who is now lobbying for better regulation of the rail industry.
The debate over oil-by-freight sparked at Lac-Mégantic was further fuelled over the past year by a string of smaller-scale derailments in western Alabama, western Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Lynchburg, Va., and Colorado.
“The rail industry hasn't been regulated since the 1960s,” said Pellerin, who testified in front of congress on the issue.” He added: “Unless we regulate this [industry]…these stories will just become news stories to talk about.”
It was like 9/11. This was their 9/11 for Canada.
In April, the Canadian government imposed stringent new rules, ordering 5,000 of the most dangerous tanker cars off the rails immediately, and for another 65,000 DOT-111 cars to be retrofitted or removed within three years. The regulations also covered speed limit, route assessments and emergency plans for catastrophic events.
Hundreds of the same old tanker cars, DOT-111s, carry millions of gallons of that same Bakken oil across the United States. But, the U.S. hasn’t followed with the same kind of decisive action, especially concerning the DOT-111, which date from the 1960s and account for 69 percent of America’s fleet. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced an emergency order requiring rail companies to alert state emergency officials when they plan to move large volumes of crude, and “strongly urg[ed],” but didn’t mandate, stronger tank cars.
But Pellerin said even Canada’s response was too weak, and that another accident will happen at some point with more fatalities.
“What we need to do it have the people who are in charge, the federal regulators, the people who oversee transportation write regulations that make sense to keep the people safe in their homes, and then have the ability to enforce those regulations,” Pellerin said.
The whistle returns
As Blanchette talked to America Tonight about where she was the night of the disaster, a whistle blew in the background, followed by a loud clank of bells.
“It reminds me of when tragedy arrived,” Blanchette said.
While much of downtown is still under construction, the railway tracks that snake through the center of Lac-Mégantic are one of the first things that were repaired. These days, freight trains roll through town twice a week and they’re only allowed to carry non-hazardous material.
But, the new owner of the railroad has plans to eventually start shipping crude oil through the center of town again. It’s a prospect that angers Blanchette.
“Not in my town,” she said. “It’s just impossible that a toxic [train] can pass here again.”
Gagné, the owner of Musi-Café, agrees.
“We don’t deserve this, not with all that has happened," he said. "Not with all we have lost.”
The mayor realizes that many in the town are deeply uneasy about the proposed resumption of oil shipments, but said the new rail line owner – the previous owner went bankrupt after the crash -- assures the trains will be as safe as possible, and move at the slowest possible speed.
As the first anniversary of the disaster approaches, many in town want it to pass by quietly. Gagné said he’ll spend the day at home with his family, while Blanchette said she’ll pray for the victims and their families.
Both say that although things will never be the same in Lac-Mégantic, they’re hopeful the town will eventually become whole again.
“We can build something great, beautiful," Gagné said. "For the people of Lac-Mégantic and for the people around the world."
Dominique Bonessi contributed to this report.