‘The Whole Sky Was Burning’: A Lac-Mégantic Resident Recalls the Tragedy

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Adrien Aubert was moments away from death. At around 1 a.m. on July 6, the 29-year-old, who works for the social network Plogg, was having a beer with friends outside his home in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, a town about 250 kilometers east of Montréal, when he heard a loud boom come from the downtown area, where he was headed next.

He grabbed his camera and darted to the area within minutes, stopping about 200 meters away and only inching closer to film. Aubert arrived so fast that most emergency personnel weren’t even at the scene.

“The whole sky was burning,” he says. “It was just fireballs going high up.” Others near the scene explained that a speeding train had barreled into the heart of town, crashed behind Musi-Café, the popular watering hole where Aubert was about to visit, and exploded.

When he approached the site, he saw four or five wagons that had not caught fire yet. “That’s when I understood it was a train that blew up,” he says. More of them burst while Aubert filmed. As fire filled the sky, people were going door to door, waking up those who hadn’t heard the explosions, trying to get them out of their houses.

Those who managed to scramble away from the Musi-Café were already outdoors, he says, but not yet safe. “It was like a wave of burning liquid that was just running after people who were running away,” Aubert adds. “The ones who were inside, they had no chance to get out.” Town residents were standing around, staring in stupefaction; others were in full motion, either running away or toward the flames.

Officials say a runaway train carrying crude oil had been parked in the town of Nantes, about seven miles away, but for reasons still being determined had traveled unmanned and undetected before derailing behind the bar, where live musicians play and where the rail tracks out back sharply curve. One-third of the town’s 6,000 residents were evacuated. Most have been sheltered in the nearby high school, and as of Thursday afternoon, 1,800 of them were able to return home. Twenty bodies have been recovered from the “red zone,” where 30 buildings were damaged or incinerated, and police have told families of the dozens who are still missing that they are presumed dead.

Aubert, who is half-French and half-Indonesian, has lived in Lac-Mégantic for four years. The fiery accident and the media circus that followed has dented the town’s sleepy, small-town idyll. Canadian media outlets now are honing in on possible negligence at the root of the cause, but coverage of the tragedy has been thin in the U.S., despite the train’s owner and operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, being based in Hermon, Maine.

Firefighters reportedly responded to flames aboard the same train on Friday night, which led to the engine being shut down and the release of its air brakes. A heated debate has ensued about whether those brakes were ever reset. And, if not, why?

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of MMA, initially hailed the train’s engineer, likely the last person at the controls before the crash, as a hero for preventing additional carnage. Tom Harding was reportedly asleep at a nearby hotel when he heard an explosion and rushed to pilot a rail tractor to not only catch the speeding oil-filled cars, but also to remove enough pins to stop some of them from reaching Lac-Mégantic.

That story was disputed by the fire chief, who claimed a local firefighter had been responsible for thwarting further disaster. In Lac-Mégantic on Wednesday, Burkhardt changed his story, too, by suggesting that Harding’s admission of applying 11 handbrakes before leaving the train for the night was “very questionable,” if not wholly false.

As more information comes out about who or what might have caused the chain of events, the town is focusing on supporting those who lost relatives, friends or property. Aubert says he helped organize a police-escorted bus to take those evacuated at the high school to a cinema on the other side of Lac-Mégantic for a screening of a children’s film. On Wednesday, he helped set up an evening picnic in a park with sports and music to cheer up the town.

That’s a difficult task in a place as tightly knit as this. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper mentioned during his visit on July 7, “there isn’t a family in this area that is not touched by this, that is not affected by this.”

That includes Aubert. He knows of victims who were inside Musi-Café, where he has performed and where his girlfriend worked. Like him, she was supposed to be at the bar that night with a friend, but opted against it. Over the past few days, somber conversations have focused on who didn’t make it out. “It’s an unusual situation because I have many people who disappeared at the same time,” he says. “I’ve seen a friend who’s lost his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and two other friends.”

But just as tough as this has all been, Aubert thinks the town will somehow mend. A significant portion of the downtown core was recently being revitalized, including renovations to Musi-Café. “You could see and sense that everyone wanted to make downtown a beautiful place,” he says. “After the grief, we’ll be able to rebuild.”