The Musi-Cafe bistro was one of the liveliest gathering spots in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. On the night a runaway train carrying crude exploded in the small town, it became a scorched landmark for the worst Canadian rail disaster in more than a century.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on July 6, the 73-car train crashed near the center of town, sending a wall of flames 12-storeys high behind the bistro, where residents like Lucie Vadnais were enjoying drinks, meeting friends and celebrating birthdays.
“She was a mother to everyone,” said Josee Lemieux, whose son Benjamin attended a day-care center run by Vadnais. “She didn’t have a chance.”
Vadnais gave Lemieux an album with photos of Benjamin when he left the daycare on Rue Baie-des-Sables. This week, Lemieux read aloud what Vadnais had written in the album: “I’ll always be there for you.”
The town of 5,932 people, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) north of Maine, is beginning to formally identify and honor the dead, expected to number 50, from the worst rail disaster in Canada since 1910. Police have confirmed 28 deaths, with another 22 people missing and presumed dead.
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said that a public memorial would be held at the St. Agnes Catholic Church starting yesterday. She invited friends and family to pay tribute to the people who perished in the blaze after the oil-laden Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train crashed.
“It gives people a chance to reflect, to think about the people who died,” said Jean-Denis Martel, 71, a resident who knew several of the victims and came to the church to mourn. “Even talking about it now, it hurts. These were lives. They were given a life and for no reason it was taken away.”
Blue, green and white candles were lit in honor of the victims at the front of the church. Visitors were invited to leave photos of the deceased and lay flowers at an altar. Well-wishers were also asked to write messages on multi-colored paper hearts and stick them to a bulletin board.
“Together, as a community and with everyone who supports us, let’s create something beautiful,” one message read.
Many of the victims spent their final moments at Musi-Cafe on Rue Frontenac sipping beer, eating shrimp salad tortillas and listening to the music of Guy Bolduc, who is among the missing. The Lafontaine family was celebrating the 40th birthday of Josee, according to the Globe and Mail. Gaetan Lafontaine and Karine Lafontaine are among the missing, the newspaper reported.
“I know everyone personally, the name of each one, what they like, what they do, everything,” Yannick Gagne, the owner of the bar, said in a July 9 interview with CTV News. Three of his staff died that night, he said. One of the missing employees, 18-year-old Elodie Turcotte, had been with the restaurant for only three weeks.
Left in Time
Gagne said about 40 people were inside his bar and 20 others were on the patio when the train exploded. Gagne left the bar about 12:30 a.m., followed by his pregnant wife 15 minutes later. When approached at his home in Lac-Megantic, Gagne declined further comment.
Simonne Fillion Cloutier, who has lived in the town for 51 years, was one of the Musi-Cafe patrons who got out alive. The nursing-home cook ate tacos and drank wine with three friends before leaving at 10:30 p.m., less than three hours before the crash.
“Everyone was enjoying themselves and it was nice out,” she said. “I never thought I would never see the people who were there again.”
A significant portion of the town’s residents will likely suffer severe post-traumatic stress disorder, said Russell Jones, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, and a licensed clinical psychologist.
“No doubt, the entire community is traumatized,” Jones said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s a very long-term recovery. It places a significant burden on this small community.”
Jones participated with former first lady Laura Bush in a 2005 briefing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and led disaster trauma initiatives at the college following the shooting deaths of 32 people in 2007.
Man-made disasters, including collisions and hazardous-materials spills such as the one in the Quebec municipality cause more distress than natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, he said.
“People have more difficulty dealing with traumatic events if in fact it was man-made and could have been prevented,” he said. “It adds another layer of burden in coping with it.”
The company’s involvement in dealing with the aftermath by providing counseling services or funding may help victims in their recovery, Jones said. Residents should seek help from family, friends, and religious communities as a first step, he said.
Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., owner of the railroad, said this week he’s setting up an office where the company’s insurer will receive claims and begin to process them. He’s also working with the Red Cross to ensure people who were forced to evacuate have proper clothing, food and shelter before rebuilding begins.
“We have a lot of work to do with the people in this town who are, frankly, mad as hell right now,” Burkhardt said. “Understandably so.”
XL Group Plc is one of the insurers for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, a spokeswoman for the Dublin-based insurance company said. Burkhardt said the limits of his company’s coverage “are going to be tested,” without saying how much insurance it holds.
MM&A’s safety record has improved over the last decade, figures released yesterday by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board show. The railway had six accidents in 2012, down from 23 in 2003. Overall, rail accidents in Canada declined 25 percent in the last decade, to 1,015 last year.
There will “undoubtedly” be a class-action lawsuit over the disaster, Dimitri Lascaris, who heads the securities class action group at law firm Siskinds LLP in Montreal, said in a phone interview yesterday. “You’re going to have claims from loss of business, from the families of the deceased, damage to property -- it’s substantial.”
Siskinds is looking into representing the Lac-Megantic victims in court, he said.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois pledged C$1,000 ($962) for each individual affected by the disaster, part of a C$60 million aid package for Lac-Megantic families and businesses.
In the meantime, residents like Lemieux struggle to get by without their lost friends and family members.
“I hope she’s still up there watching us, because it’s not easy,” said Lemieux, choking back tears, thinking about Vadnais and her home day-care center. “Every time a stroller goes by we think, ‘No, it’s not Lucie.’”