Remembrance: A year ago, Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

Repost from The Martinez News-Gazette

A year ago: Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

By Guy Cooper | July 13, 2014

I can’t help thinking of them, the 47 lives suddenly snuffed a year ago, July 6, by a runaway oil train that incinerated that downtown and fostered a firestorm of outrage, fear and controversy across this continent about the haste, greed and disregard that deliver oil trains threatening our communities with death and disaster.

I knew none of them, but feel a kinship for another small, quaint, historic railroad town of antique brick buildings clustered by train tracks aside a waterfront park, alive on a warm summer night with music, laughter and camaraderie amongst good friends.

The Musi-Cafe was the place to gather in Lac-Mégantic on such a night, not unlike what you would encounter at Armando’s, the Sunflower, Barrel Aged, Roxx’s and other gathering places on a pleasant summer evening in Martinez. By 1 a.m. you might imagine the patrons were quite animated with libations and good cheer. Then things went horribly wrong.

(The following account is drawn, sometimes verbatim, from an article published Nov. 28, 2013, by Justin Giovannetti in the Toronto Globe and Mail, entitled “Last moments of Lac-Mégantic: Survivors share their stories.” His portrayal is heart-wrenching. I urge you to read it. I attempt to provide a sense of the tragedy from that account.)

Yvon Ricard and Guy Bolduc, great friends and popular musicians at the Musi-Cafe, had just finished a set about 1:10 a.m. July 6. Yvon went out onto the terrace for a smoke while Guy chatted with people at the bar. Outside, Yvon’s conversation with waitress Maude Verreault was suddenly interrupted by an insistent clanging at the rail crossing.

Luc Dion and Julie Heon also sat on the terrace, quietly staring into each other’s eyes, their beers untouched. A chance meeting that night brought the couple together in person, after having chatted online for weeks. Julie’s friend, Karine, left them alone with a wink and returned inside to the bar. At 1:14 a.m., these star-crossed lovers noticed a blur at the edge of their vision, heard a strong wind and felt the ground shake. They leapt to their feet, instinctively knowing what was coming.

Bar owner Yannick Gagne attempted to leave earlier to pick up his kids from the babysitter and go home, his pregnant wife staying behind at the bar to help out till about 1 a.m. It wasn’t easy to leave. The place was packed, about 80 patrons inside and another 40 on the terrace. Several group celebrations were going on, birthdays and such. Friends at the bar tried to tempt Yannick to stay and down shooters with them. They teased. He didn’t get out of there till 12:30.

Karine Blanchette also waitressed there, but this night left early and didn’t get back till about 1 a.m. She was tired and couldn’t find a parking spot, so drove on home after enthusiastically waving and yelling greetings to those on the terrace.

Estel Blanchet, recently back from her last year of high school, exchanged goodbyes with her mom, Natachat Gaudreau, and headed home. Her mom went on to the Musi-Cafe with a friend to catch the live music she loved. Lying in bed later, daughter Estel thought nothing of the sound of sirens outside on the street. By 1 a.m. her mother sat alone in the bar by the stage.

Rene Simard, a local art teacher, along with a young friend Melissa Roy, arrived that evening to meet many other friends, parking his brand new Mini Cooper right out front. Late that night, Rene made it out to the terrace for a smoke after multiple detours to chat with old friends and former students. There, he was joined by his friend Frederic Fortin. It was only a moment later they felt something like an earthquake and saw the train speed by.

Christian Lafontaine and his brother Gaetan were both there with their wives and many friends. By 1 a.m. they were by the bar getting set to leave. As Christian waited to pay the bill, Gaetan’s wife headed to the bathroom. Suddenly, there were two earthquake-like shocks, the second much more violent than the first. Christian and his wife looked at each other with alarm and hastened towards the front door, while an apprehensive Gaetan took off looking for his wife. The bar suddenly went pitch black then lit up a blinding orange.

One tanker car after another derailed, momentum piling up a tortured metal edifice three stories high containing over 1.8 million gallons of crude oil. A panicked crowd desperately tried to flee or find shelter. Out the front door in seconds, Christian and his wife raced away from the street-wide wall of fire coming towards them. Yvon Ricard, initially shocked into immobility at the sight of an immense mushroom cloud, was jolted by the heat of burning oil to frantically run with four others towards the lake until they no longer felt the searing heat on their backs. Rene Simard stumbled disoriented as he ran from the terrace of the Musi-Cafe. His friend Frederic pulled him to his feet, and as they ran for the Mini Cooper, it exploded. It was parked on the side of the building away from the tracks. When he saw what happened to his car there, he knew those still inside the bar behind him were dead. They continued running.

Luc and Julie jumped off the terrace and ran between houses towards the lake. They became separated. She ran towards her home across what would soon become a charred landscape. By the time Luc reached the lake the park was burning, flaming oil was spilling into the water, and a look back towards the town revealed four blocks of the downtown on fire. Waves of flames washed over the Musi-Cafe.

Yannick’s wife made it home just before the train derailment. Then, in response to a frantic call, Yannick tried to make it back to the bar, but the way was blocked. He broke down and cried like a baby. The goodbye earlier that evening was the last time Estel saw her mother alive. Christian’s wife lost her best friend. The bodies of Christian’s brother, Gaetan, and his wife Joanie were found together at the back of the bar. The coroner told families of the victims that most asphyxiated as the fire quickly consumed all the oxygen. Rene Simard, distraught by the loss of so many friends, did not return to teaching. Luc and Julie both survived and are still together as of five months following the disaster. The musician Yvon returned safely that night to his terrified wife and two daughters, but with no news of his friend and music partner to offer Guy’s wife and two teenagers. Guy perished.

All told, 47 lives were lost, 27 children orphaned, the heart and soul of the town destroyed.