Downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, has been declared a crime scene in the aftermath of a runaway 
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train which derailed catastrophically. | AP photo

Death and life in Lac-Mégantic
Who is responsible?

At the end of a big lake, surrounded by forests, farms, and blue mountains, the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic is one of my favorite places to visit. Its friendly people have given me the chance to polish a little my rusty French in a somewhat-exotique culture only a few hours’ drive from my home in Augusta.

Driving there on July 11, the sun came out just as I reached the border. The Canadian customs officer told me I needed to take a detour to Lac-Mégantic. The bridge over the Chaudière River had been closed because of the explosions and fires resulting from the runaway-oil-train derailment that on July 6 killed 50 people and destroyed much of the community’s center.

As I reached the town, the detour took me down the long, straight incline of Rue Laval toward the lake, paralleling the now-empty track that the train had descended — a massive, unlighted phantom train accelerating for six miles in the moonless night.

It was a Maine train belonging to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, based in Hermon, that did this to Lac-Mégantic. In a sense, we Mainers are responsible, aren’t we? Or not? Who is responsible? That’s the question I had in my mind.

I met my Quebec hiking friend, Mike Evans, at Tim Hortons, where groups of retirees seemingly were holding their usual coffee-klatches — though it was undoubtedly unusual that at the other tables there were numerous police officers in military mode, pants tucked into combat boots.

When Mike and I walked toward downtown we soon met orange crime-scene tape marking off a heavily guarded no-admittance zone. It was several blocks’ distant from the “red zone” of the destruction, which was screened from sight by an eight-foot-high metal and fabric fence.

Alongside the orange tape, mothers pushed baby carriages and boys and girls played on sidewalks in front of small, tidy homes with faux-stone facades and blossoming flower gardens. At first this pleasant sight appeared incongruous to me, but life and death go together.

Think of Rockland
Lac-Mégantic has — or had —6000 residents, a bit fewer than Rockland, which also is a resort town on the water with a substantial working-class population (Lac-Mégantic produces wood products; Rockland used to produce fish). Imagine the charming, historic Rockland downtown incinerated overnight, with a crowd of young people in a popular bar instantly converted to ashes. In Lac-Mégantic the bar was called the Musi-Café.

“An accident waiting to happen,” said Mike, a retired scientist. In Lac-Mégantic the basic science of gravity had not been respected.

As we looked up the track, what happened became clearer. Imagine, we said to each other, just one guy running a 73-car train with highly dangerous cargo who left it perched on a slope above the center of town; one guy who then, per company procedure, went to sleep in a hotel.

“L’absurdité criminelle” — criminal absurdity, a columnist for a Montreal newspaper wrote. The police have opened a criminal investigation, but Canadian regulators apparently had approved Montreal, Maine & Atlantic trains with only one person on them. Humans seem to have trouble taking human error into account.

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