An anniversary nobody wants
A memorial has been established and is in place; Le Musi-Cafe is rebuilt and is once again the go-to tavern in town and from an outsider looking in, everything appears normal. The truth is, Lac-Megantic, Quebec, will never again be normal. Tuesday, July 6 marked the eighth anniversary of the worst rail disaster in modern Canadian history. It happened late on the night of July 6, 2013, and into the next day, and it has a western North Dakota connection.
A train carrying Bakken crude oil rolled down a long grade and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic. As it did, it impacted Le Musi-Cafe and exploded. The detonation annihilated Lac-Megantic’s downtown area and 30 of the 47 people who died in that tragedy were young people celebrating a Friday night out on the town. As reports in the days following the accident are recalled, firefighters told the Canadian media that oil wasn’t supposed to explode and burn. It is just supposed to burn.
All of this happened before most people knew that Bakken crude was highly volatile and had the chemical makeup to ignite like gasoline. As a result, firefighters from as far away as northern Maine were dispatched to Lac-Megantic thinking they were going to fight an oil fire, but they couldn’t get the fire out because they were using the wrong tools. Somebody had placed the wrong placards on each rail car and many were later correctly identified.
The train left a loading facility in New Town and traveled through a number of major cities; Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and Montreal before destroying the town of Lac-Megantic, a community of 6,000 in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. The latest population indicates that the community lost about 100 people following the disaster. Initially, gobs of people were moving away, some just to get away from the horror of it all in seeing some of their friends perish. The explosion not only leveled the downtown section of Lac-Megantic but contaminated the drinking water supply as well as an adjacent lake also named Lac-Megantic.
The local newspaper, L’Echo du Frontenac, did what any Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper would do. It captured the horror in photographs and human testimony. The TV stations came down from Montreal and showed video, but they weren’t there in the seconds and minutes as it was happening. Rene Tremblay was the editor of L’Echo, and although he never admitted it, the tragedy bothered him a lot and still does. He, instead, tried focusing on his job at hand and did a remarkable job through it all.
The Canadian government launched an investigation as to why something like this would have happened, and over the course of about two years, the federal government decided the oil on the train was labeled wrong and that parking brakes weren’t applied properly on the locomotives. Also in the months following the accident, lawyers started showing up in Lac-Megantic like vultures after a steer dies in the desert. They began taking their own testimony from those who survived the accident. It didn’t take the legal team long to figure out they had plenty of fodder for law suits. As time went on, a total of 27 lawsuits, including class-action suits, were filed against the railroad, the engineers, the company that loaded the oil as well as the oil companies that chose not to disclose that Bakken crude was volatile and dangerous.
Even in the aftermath of the disaster, North Dakota’s head of mineral resources insisted Bakken crude wasn’t dangerous, and he was going to release a white paper to clarify that. Then a train blew up just west of Casselton and that put that false narrative to rest. Numerous Bakken crude trains exploded after Lac-Megantic, but none of them had the magnitude of the Quebec calamity because of the enormous loss of life. It took something like seven explosions before the industry finally started manufacturing safer rail cars that could actually transport the crude with much less risk of explosion.
Yes, Lac-Megantic appears to be back to normal after the Quebec provincial government and the Canadian federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the community. The death toll remains in people’s minds and most likely always will. It was an incredibly sad affair, but the people of Lac-Megantic came through it with grace and dignity.