Ride the bike path that parallels the train tracks that bisect Lac-Megantic in Quebec’s postcard-perfect Eastern Townships, and you get a pretty good idea of how the accident unfolded that wiped out about half of its business district.
The tracks slope gently for miles through the woods and then a little steeper along 10 residential blocks before the tracks take a little jog to the left. That’s where cars hauling North Dakota crude to a Canadian refinery jumped the tracks, setting off an explosion that killed 47 on July 6. It was the fourth-deadliest rail disaster in Canadian history and the worst in 149 years.
I visited Lac-Megantic for two days last week and found that life outside the cleanup zone is going on as normal as possible. The old men still gather at Tim Hortons to talk about the news every morning, and excellent poutine is available up and down Rue Laval with some adding jalapenos as a nod to American tourists.
The news photos have given a good sense of the scope of the destruction, but you can’t really appreciate it until you get your nose up against the fence. If you arranged four American football fields in a large rectangle and plopped them down over the middle of town, you’d still have a decent amount of space left over on the edges. Traffic on the main route through down has been halted, forcing a four-mile detour to get from the main route from the south into much of Lac-Megantic.
The local politicians are debating where to put the focus of the new business district, and a few of the Montreal Canadiens showed up a few days ahead of me to buoy the local mood.
Down at Rue Frontenac where the derailment happened, a truck leaves or enters the heavily guarded disaster zone every three minutes. It appears that most of the contaminated soil has been hauled out, and five mountains of new dirt stood waiting to replace it.
You can still see where the heat from the blast buckled siding on houses and businesses as far as three blocks away.
The locals gather by the dozens along the fence to watch what’s going on; I saw one man sit on the hood of his car for a good 20 minutes. I didn’t really want to pry about how people are feeling with the disaster not so far removed. Plus, I don’t speak French beyond a few words, and even though it’s just 25 miles to the Maine border, I might as well have been in Lyon for as well I was able to communicate.
Better to keep a low profile. I am looking forward to going back in about five years to see what Quebec and Lac-Megantic have done. And maybe then I’ll be able to ask a few questions.
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