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A birthday that no one wants
A memorial has been established and is in place; The Musi-Cafe is rebuilt and once again becomes the must-see tavern in the city and for a stranger looking into it, everything seems normal. The truth is that Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, will never be normal again. Tuesday, July 6 marked the eighth anniversary of the worst rail disaster in modern Canadian history. This happened late on the night of July 6, 2013 and into the next day, and there is a connection to western North Dakota.
A train carrying Bakken crude oil rolled down a long slope and derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic. As it did, it impacted Le Musi-Café and exploded. The detonation devastated downtown Lac-Mégantic and 30 of the 47 people who died in the tragedy were young people celebrating a Friday night in town. While reports for the days following the crash are recalled, firefighters told Canadian media that oil was not supposed to explode and burn. He’s just supposed to burn.
This all happened before most people knew that Bakken crude was very volatile and had the chemical makeup to ignite like gasoline. As a result, firefighters from as far away as northern Maine were dispatched to Lac-Mégantic thinking they were going to fight an oil fire, but they were unable to extinguish the blaze because they were using the bad tools. Someone had placed the wrong signs on each car and many of them were then correctly identified.
The train left a loading facility in New Town and passed through a number of major towns; Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and Montreal before destroying the city of Lac-Mégantic, a community of 6,000 inhabitants in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The latest population indicates that the community lost around 100 people as a result of the disaster. Initially, loads of people were walking away, some just to escape the horror of it all when they saw some of their friends perish. The explosion not only leveled the downtown section of Lac-Mégantic, but contaminated the drinking water supply as well as an adjacent lake also named Lac-Mégantic.
The local newspaper, L’Echo du Frontenac, did what any Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper would do. He captured the horror in photographs and human testimony. The TV stations came in from Montreal and showed the videos, but they weren’t there for the seconds and minutes it was happening. René Tremblay was the editor-in-chief of L’Echo, and although he never admitted it, the tragedy bothered him a lot and still does. Instead, he tried to focus on his job and did an amazing job through it all.
The Canadian government launched an investigation to find out why something like this had happened, and over the course of about two years the federal government decided that the oil on the train was mislabeled and the parking brakes were no ‘were not applied correctly on the locomotives. Also in the months following the accident, lawyers began to present themselves in Lac-Mégantic like vultures after the death of a steer in the desert. They began to collect their own testimony from those who survived the crash. It didn’t take long for the legal team to realize that they had a lot of material to pursue. Over time, a total of 27 lawsuits, including class actions, have been filed against the railroad, the engineers, the company that charged the oil as well as the oil companies that chose not to disclose that the Bakken crude was volatile and dangerous. .
Even in the aftermath of the disaster, the North Dakota mineral resources official insisted that Bakken crude was not dangerous, and he was going to issue a white paper to clarify that. Then a train blew up just west of Casselton and that ended this false story. Many Bakken crude trains exploded after Lac-Mégantic, but none of them had the magnitude of the Quebec calamity due to the enormous loss of human life. It took about seven explosions before the industry finally began to make safer railcars that could effectively haul crude with much less risk of explosion.
Yes, Lac-Mégantic appears to have returned to normal after the Quebec provincial government and the Canadian federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the community. The death toll stays on people’s minds and probably always will be. It was an incredibly sad affair, but the people of Lac-Mégantic lived it with grace and dignity.