Reflections on Lac-Mégantic

We left Montreal yesterday morning for the 6-hour drive to Bangor, Maine. Despite my best re-packing efforts, the car was still full to the brim, but at least we’re a bit more organized! The drive was gorgeous and the roads were empty – you can really feel the low population density up here.

We stopped at the town of Lac-Mégantic for lunch. Braden mentioned that it was the site of some open-water swimming events and mentioned that it was the site of a railway disaster. I vaguely remember hearing about that, but had no concept of any details. We ate lunch in a cute strip of shops and restaurants that had a very new feel. I just thought it was a nice modern development. After lunch, we took a short walk to the lake, which skirted a large grassy field with a clear view of an old church about a half mile away. There was some construction equipment in between. And then we came up to a sign, with a map of the town, a picture of a cute downtown main street, and a couple of paragraphs in French. My French comprehension was not enough for it to sink in, so I pulled up the Wikipedia article about the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster as we walked.

Oh, my god. That empty field with some construction equipment in the distance was once downtown. The photo on the sign showed 70 buildings that just weren’t there any more. When the train carrying crude oil rolled into downtown, derailed, and exploded, 47 people died – in a town of less than 6,000 people. Explosion after explosion shook the town, and then the flaming oil poured into the sewer system, with “huge fires towering from other storm sewer drains, manholes, and even chimneys and basements of buildings in the area.” There were mass evacuations, and dozens of buildings that didn’t burn had to demolished later because of the petroleum contamination. It took two days to put out the fire. The details of how the disaster unfolded are horrifying – a “combination of neglect, defective locomotive, poor maintenance, driver error, flawed operating procedures, weak regulatory oversight, [and] lack of safety redundancy,” according to the Wikipedia article. 

I don’t know what it says about me, or my consumption of news, or the news media’s coverage, that I had very little concept of what happened here five years ago. Thinking back to that time, I remember over-consuming news coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston bombing case, to the extent that it was keeping me up at night, and trying to dial back how obsessively I followed the news. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t really heard of this – or maybe it didn’t get a lot of coverage because it happened in a small town in rural Canada? I like to think that I’m at least vaguely aware of what’s happening in the world, but I might never have really heard about this disaster if we hadn’t basically stumbled upon the town by accident. It makes me think a lot about how we experience the world and current events – and what else I might be missing… or not paying attention to.

Update: It turns out that July 6, 2013 was also the day of the Asiana Airlines crash at SFO. I was working at a travel agency at the time, so that news would have overshadowed anything else that day.

Also, Google Maps has this eerie “before and after” effect on streetview of Lac Megantic. Crazy to see.

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