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How Lac-Mégantic is coping with the enormous grief

A skull and crossed bones sign with the words "No TRain" is posted on a utility box beside the train tracks in Lac-Mégantic, Que. on July 12, 2013. Yesterday authorities here opened up some new areas of town to residents, but the damaged areas of downtown remain behind a steel screened fence that will likely remain for some time following the devastating derailment here early Saturday morning. The church near the epicentre of the disaster, St. Agnes, is now accessible to the town's people, but media have been asked to keep their distance.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It would be an idyllic summer scene if you didn't know where the train tracks were heading.From the bike path and jogging trail that curve around the lake, you can glimpse the towering spire of the St. Agnes Roman Catholic church at the top of Lac-Mégantic's taped-off main street. And yet as close as you are to the charred ruins and the unavoidable sense of something horrible that can't yet be described, the gentle pleasures of life in a small Quebec town haven't been extinguished.

The thick country grass near the slate-grey footpath is recently mown and wafts the sweet smell of hay. There are wild strawberry plants and raspberry canes growing at the base of the shade-providing trees that separate walkers, joggers and cyclists from the narrow band of accompanying track 20 metres away.

As you emerge into a quiet neighbourhood streetscape, the view opens up. The long, silvery lake lies below, across the parkland and sports fields where children gathered around their counsellor in a time-honoured summer-camp circle, as if nothing bad had happened here. Beyond the water, the rounded summits of the ancient Appalachian Mountains stretch off across the Eastern Townships, offering the mute solace that a distant landscape can bring.

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Coming from the opposite direction, from his home just outside the exclusion area of destroyed buildings, piled-up oil cars and human remains, Guy Lepage fixes his gaze on something closer and less comforting. It's a homemade sign, posted resolutely beside the tracks of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway: "You – The Train of Hell. Don't come back here. You're not welcome anymore."

As Sultan, Mr. Lepage's huskie, impatiently awaits a promised walk along the footpath, his owner expands on the sign's sentiments, which are widespread now: "We have to destroy the track here, and shift it away from the centre. It can go around the town. The rail line doesn't work for the people here."

Mr. Lepage lives a few steps from the tracks and just recently moved from the now-devastated main street of Lac-Mégantic, a historic railway junction that owes its existence to the 145-year presence of rail lines that still serve local industry. He says he lost eight or 10 friends ("I really don't know how many"). His 83-year-old mother was staying with him when the fire broke out; her first words after that were, "Get me out of this inferno." His brother in Montreal came to the rescue.

"The heart is broken," he says, calmly pounding his chest on this restful street where the laughter of children competes with the never-resting lawn mowers. "Mais la vie continue" – life goes on.

Life goes on across the road in a happily noisy daycare, with the beguiling name of Sous les étoiles ("Under the Stars"). Painted on the wall facing the nearby rail line is a mural of children cavorting under the moon and stars, accompanied by darting dragonflies, courting bunny rabbits and amiable bears. Darkness in these parts is not meant to be menacing.

Life goes on for Mr. Lepage with his 12-hour workdays at a hotel restaurant beside the town high school that is now an emergency evacuation and counselling centre. Sultan still needs walking and water has to be found, since the oil spill contaminated the local supply. The Red Cross does a daily drive-by delivery, but if he misses that, Mr. Lepage knows he can get free water at a nearby Jean Coutu pharmacy.

"There's solidarity here," he says, with the unshowy pride of a man explaining small-town Quebec values to an urban outsider. "It's necessary. Everybody has someone who is dead."

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This sense of solidarity is powerful in Lac-Mégantic and across Quebec. In the town of Magog, on the other side of the Eastern Townships, another place where the rail cars with their toxic loads pass right through the centre of town, Red Cross donation boxes are parked at checkout counters. Store clerks at the Metro supermarket ask if you want to add a donation to your debit purchase. Almost everyone gives.

Isabelle Varga was moved by this same fellow feeling. "My heart was saying, 'Isabelle, go do something.' " So she drove down from Shawinigan, not knowing if she would find a place to stay in this still relatively secluded and undeveloped region just north of the Maine border.

Many tourists have been cancelling their reservations at the country bed and breakfasts that provide much of the local accommodation. But their places have been snapped up by emergency personnel, a pack of journalists including French and British reporters, government investigators and insurance officials, who, as one of them said over a breakfast omelette stuffed with cheese curds made in Lac-Mégantic, are "here to write cheques."

Ms. Varga didn't have money or expertise to offer, so instead she brought 300 water bottles, to each of which she affixed a heart and the words "Solidarité, Amour, Espoir." She simply wanted the people of the town to know that they were not alone – "even if they need to talk, or a hug."

But this is not a place that wears its emotional needs on the outside. The vivid expressions of grief and suffering that we're used to from some faraway scenes of devastation don't have their counterpart here. People who look for an explanation wonder whether it has something to do with the old lessons and family values of Quebec Catholicism, or the stoicism that comes from the toughness of life in a rocky, forested landscape where survival depended – and depends – on co-operative self-sufficiency.

Calgary had its spirit of neighbourliness after its floods, New Yorkers effused defiant metropolitan determination in the wake of 9/11 and Lac-Mégantic is a small Quebec town, with whatever generalizations that entails. Journalists who are covering the disaster have been struck by the calm and goodwill.

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One Parisian reporter used to insinuating himself into tragedy steeled himself for the familiar anger and sarcastic unhelpfulness. He couldn't comprehend the amount of assistance volunteered by people who had much else on their mind.

One of the most tireless citizens is also among the most prominent – Raymond Lafontaine, a paving and excavation entrepreneur who lost his son and two daughters-in-law in the conflagration. He was among the first on the early-morning scene to fight the spreading fire and chemical spill with his company's equipment.

Many of the journalists in the first few days after the train derailment congregated at the high school near the entrance to the town, where evacuees were brought and quietly took shelter, chatted, smoked and sorted out their needs. Nearby was a tall, deeply tanned grey-haired man in well-used work boots, dirty blue pants, a paving company T-shirt and dirt under his fingernails – Mr. Lafontaine. For hours, he talked to members of the media in a measured, stream-of-thought monologue that didn't invite interruption.

His main point was clear: The train line built for carrying benign forest products shouldn't be transporting dangerous goods through the centre of a town. Things had to be reorganized in a more sensible way.

"I am not a terrorist," he kept telling people, leaving the unspoken implication that he was letting his rationality overcome his darker, innermost thoughts.

No one listening to his words could get past his calm demeanour – this man who had every right to scream to the heavens or to threaten the chairman of the railway, Edward Burkhardt (who was in fact screamed at on an aborted visit to the edge of the disaster zone, but not by a composed Mr. Lafontaine).

When someone asked why was he not, using a French phrase, "ripping his shirt," he answered simply that "the emotions are so strong and overwhelming that you can't communicate them to anyone else." His grief was beyond words.

"Everything is destroyed," he said. His grandchildren are orphans. It was awful when he was by himself, he said, but talking to journalists made him feel better. "What I want to do is change things. It's the one thing I can do."

Some observers declared the entire town to be in a drawn-out state of shock, a kind of numbness that would eventually give way to an emotional outpouring. That analysis seems too pat, especially when a self-made man like Mr. Lafontaine can so expertly delineate his private feelings from his public statements.

But it's true that the incomplete nature of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic suspends normal reactions and defies the immediacy of sorrow. For days, there were no names, no certainty about the dead, no bodies to carry, no services to be held. Forensic experts work with painstaking care at identifying the remains, and investigators have to make their cases far from prying eyes.

The entire centre of town disappeared from public view as neighbours were removed and tape went up around the exclusion zone. A possible crime scene familiar to the rest of Canada from aerial shots couldn't be glimpsed on the ground.

There are always high viewing points in this part of Quebec, and people began making their way to a nearby park where a cross stood guard, erected in the Catholic Holy Year of 1950 as a public statement of faith in an increasingly faithless world.

Two dozen people had made the ascent by car on a sunny afternoon last week, and many had brought their cameras and binoculars. With the unaided eye, you couldn't see much. The church spire was clear at the top of the main street and a flashing emergency light suggested a boundary at the far end. The gentle slope was paralleled by the rail tracks near the lake, the descent that had allowed the oil cars to build up their killer speed.

After that, you could work your way down and look for the gaps and emptiness that marked out the fire zone. Tall trees by a lakeside park were charred and leafless. A darker mass of blackness near the disappeared buildings had to be the jumbled-up oil cars, near the line that made a too-sharp turn across the road.

We were seeing something but it was hard to say what. Maybe we were gawkers, though the mood was quiet and respectful. Or maybe we were witnesses – do you honour the ashes of the dead merely by gazing from afar? At least there was a point of common focus, rare enough in the modern world. Nobody was checking their phones.

"Uh oh," said a small girl, balancing on the cross's base as she looked at her town centre. "It all fell down."

From this same point, if you wanted to think of other things, you could command the majesty of the expansive Lac-Mégantic region – a handy viewing guide showed the profiles of summits with their names and heights.

Summit tourism has been heavily promoted in the area as towns have watched their traditional timber and textile industries decline and begun to search for new revenue and new meaning. You can cycle, if you have the stamina of the local children who are encountered in packs of 50 practising Tour de France conquests of the steep hills. Or just take the car and tick off your peaks. The old hunting-and-fishing tourist industry is being remade into a potentially more lucrative comfort zone for stressed-out urbanites – cycling trails, a bed-and-breakfast network, maybe some spas and wineries to visit, with serene mountain views thrown in.

This is working relatively well in the parts of the Eastern Townships closer to the population bases in Montreal and Vermont. But Lac-Mégantic is more remote, "the poor relation of the Townships," as one tourism expert put it. Urbanity doesn't come naturally and there isn't much of an infrastructure to cosset visitors unprepared for the insular nature of the region. The mountains here are more real. The landscape reverts to wilderness – or pulp-company tracts of forest – very quickly.

But this largely undeveloped area has discovered another asset that might be turned to income: its dark skies. The Lac-Mégantic area is perfect for viewing stars, and there's a renowned observatory on nearby Mont Mégantic as well as an interpretative centre and international night-sky reserve called ASTROLab, which is participating in an astronomy festival this weekend.

Some people were troubled by the idea of studying the wonders of universe in the presence of tragedy and cancelled their trip to the festival. "C'est bizarre, mais c'est normale," said Fabien Dubois, who had had several cancellations at his nearby bed and breakfast called Sous un ciel étoilé ("Under a Starry Sky").

Bizarre, but normal – we have instinctive responses to scenes of horrific death that incorporate both aversion and fascination. Yes, it seems strange that people would cancel a long-planned visit because something sad had happened to people 30 kilometres away. Yet in a close-knit region like this, the catastrophe is never far away, not psychologically and not even physically.

Mr. Dubois's wife used to babysit Mr. Lafontaine's children. One of the team at ASTROLab went missing in the fire and many employees have lost relatives and friends. "We are experiencing huge shock and grief," said Sébastien Giguère, the centre's education director.

ASTROlab is a place that knows how to use the interplay between light and darkness in creative ways that go beyond stargazing. In winter, the centre organizes a torchlit snowshoe procession and last night it held a candlelit vigil for Lac-Mégantic – a reminder that something as elemental as fire has a power for devotion as well as destruction. In the Catholic tradition that shaped small-town Quebec, fire is a symbol of both hell and the Holy Spirit.

But then there is much that is two-edged and ambiguous about a tragedy that brings people together when times are worst. In an old railway junction, whose economic vitality depended on the tracks that crisscrossed the town, mass death has come from a life source.

"No more killer train," read the sign carried by a bearded, sandal-wearing man with long grey hair as he paced down a hill at the high-school evacuation centre toward an intrigued group of journalists. Richard Lefebvre looked not unlike an Old Testament prophet, albeit one whose sandals bore a cheetah-skin pattern bordered by an elegant pink stripe. The more jaded journalists had been expecting Lac-Mégantic to attract its own disaster-chasing eccentrics, and Mr. Lefebvre looked the part.

But his message was sincere and to the point: "There can be no compromise in security," he said. Mr. Burkhardt had given grave offence to local pride by blaming volunteer firefighters for the accident when he should have been looking at his own lax standards "in this archaic form of transport," Mr. Lefebvre said.

Asked how he thought the train line should be rebuilt in the town, he answered simply, "I don't think it will come back. It will have to pass somewhere where the danger is minimal, really minimal."

Nearby, the area's member of the Quebec National Assembly, Ghislain Bolduc, was being at once more philosophical and more pragmatic in trying to find a way through the town's and the world's conflicting realities.

"Our society has made a decision," he said. "Everybody wants an iPhone, everybody wants cars, everybody wants a lot of toys. And so a lot of oils and chemicals have to move around to produce all these goods. But now we have to manage that choice."

He noted that railways had been in Lac-Mégantic for 145 years, arriving within decades of the first poor Scottish settlers from the Isle of Lewis.

"I understand the people who are feeling bad, who have lost their family, and I have a lot of empathy. But is that a good idea to stop the railroad moving left and right? This railroad has always been the engine that drove the economy in Lac-Mégantic."

Railway historian Derek Booth, of Lennoxville, Que., recognizes the hostility toward the "killer train." But what surprises him is the idea that train tracks were ever seen as a benevolent urban presence, the perfect peaceful companion for bike paths, daycares and pubs.

"Railways have become so diminished in our society that we've forgotten that they are these dangerous industrial properties. From a planning point of view, you'd never put a bar within 45 metres of an oil refinery. But these trains don't belch smoke – they're quiet and unobtrusive, and people think they're more benign than they really are."

Not any more, though. Not in Lac-Mégantic. But while the antagonism toward the train line is at its highest among the people who have lost family and friends, there is also a kind of paralysis when it comes to changing the very townscape: How can you begin to reroute rail lines and reconstruct a town centre when there are still fragments of humanity among the ruins, waiting to be reclassified as victims?

Some of the town's leading industries, including a massive Portuguese-owned particle-board plant, are impatient to get back to business. Within 72 hours of the disaster, they were urging the reopening of a contaminated spur line in the town's industrial zone, so that shipments of building materials could be sent to the U.S. East Coast – because whatever the future of Lac-Mégantic (a rus in urbe place where you encounter deer bounding across industrial-park roads), its present depends heavily on the U.S. markets reached by the MM&A.

But if you go in the other direction, away from the border, back to the town of Nantes, Que., where the runaway train originated, the picture looks different: You leave Lac-Mégantic, pass a highway roundabout where Guy Lepage believes the train line could be diverted from the town centre, and soon come across graffiti-covered freight cars that are at once a misplaced urban-art project and a reminder of the diminished status of rail.

A little farther on are a row of jet-black oil cars, a surviving part of the load that derailed in Lac-Mégantic. Here, RCMP and Transport Canada investigators are on the job, far from anywhere, looking for clues. The end of the story lies in its beginning.

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