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'Hell Must Look Like This': A Grueling Year For Train-Struck Town


This weekend marks one year since a deadly train derailment in eastern Canada that killed 47 people. A U.S.-owned tanker train filled with oil from North Dakota derailed, sending plumes of fire through a small Quebec town. The explosion destroyed or contaminated much of the business district. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports that residents are still sorting out what parts of their lives and their community can be rebuilt.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Early on the morning of July 6, a train engineer parked 72 rail tanker cars filled with crude oil on a hill above the small town of Lac-Megantic. He left the train there completely unattended. The brake system malfunctioned, and those massive, sausage-shaped tanker cars barreled down into town, derailing and rupturing, sending pillars of flame and smoke hundreds of feet into the sky. Andre LaFlamme arrived on the scene and found what he describes as a wall of fire.

ANDRE LAFLAMME: It was crazy. I remember saying, like, Hell must look like this.

MANN: LaFlamme is a paramedic, a lieutenant with Lac-Megantic's fire department. That night, his crews had to fall back, retreating as more and more of the oil tanker cars erupted. It was so hot that the tar on the streets ignited. The surface of the lake was on fire, and burning chemicals flowed like lava through the town's sewer system.

LAFLAMME: We tried our best. As a firefighter, we always want to save everybody. That night, we could not.

MANN: LaFlamme grew up here and says he knew roughly half the people who died that night. In this small town, everyone lost a friend, a brother, a boss, a neighbor. That emotional body-blow is complicated by the fact that a year later, much of the downtown still sits abandoned, with construction crews working to clear away debris. A huge rubble field divides Lac-Megantic in half. A historic part of the main street sits abandoned, too heavily contaminated with heavy metal and oil residue to reoccupy.

JULIE BYRNS: I was supposed to be there that night.

MANN: Julie Byrns planned to meet her cousin and friends at the Musi Cafe, a popular nightclub and coffeehouse. By a twist of luck, she went home instead. Her cousin and friends and at least two dozen other people were trapped in the cafe. The club was incinerated. There was no escape.

BYRNS: It's not easy. We lost important people there. We lost our town. We lost the (speaking French).


BYRNS: The spirit of the town. It's fragile.

MANN: That word Julie Byrns was searching for is actually soul. She says the soul of Lac-Megantic is still fragile. That was a message echoed this morning by the town's mayor, Colette Roy Laroche.



MANN: Finding peace will take time, Roy Laroche says. Criminal cases with negligence charges were filed in May and are pending against three of the American-owned railroad's Canadian employees. The cost of rebuilding and restarting people's lives has already been huge - tens of millions of dollars. Still, many businesses haven't reopened. The town's beautiful river and lakeshore are still polluted. A decision to build a brand-new business district from scratch has been divisive. I'm walking down the new main street, the new downtown of Lac-Megantic. Everything looks like it was sort of unpacked out of a box overnight - brand-new, shiny. One of the tests for this small town will be to see if they can bring this new heart of their village to life. As part of this weekend's commemoration, artists from Lac-Megantic and around Quebec are building a ceremonial boardwalk, skirting the red zone and leading to that new main street. Mona Andreas came from Montreal to help.

MONA ANDREAS: So the idea of creating just a very simple boardwalk emerged as a way to clearly guide people through the new path and also put them a few inches away from the tragedy, finding this balance between looking back and looking forward.

MANN: The town is also looking forward to the future of the railroad tracks. Local officials say that unless Canada's government agrees to relocate the rails, those big oil tanker trains will resume their traffic here soon, rumbling again through Lac-Megantic's downtown and residential neighborhoods. Early Sunday morning, there will be a midnight mass at the church at the edge of the red zone. At the exact time of the derailment, hundreds of towns people will walk out along that boardwalk carrying candles, marking together one of the worst rail disasters in North American history. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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