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In the night, train brings grief to Quebec town

Sunday - 7/14/2013, 6:50am  ET

FILE- In this July 11, 2013, file photo, Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son and two daughters-in-law, receives a hug from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois during her visit to Lac-Megantic, Quebec as Marois toured the site where a runaway oil train killed 50 people in a fiery explosion. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

DAVID CRARY
Associated Press

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) -- It was surely the most festive spot in town as a Friday night turned into a Saturday morning at the Musi-Cafe - a full house, live music, plenty of beer and nachos to animate long-time friends.

Among the dozens enjoying themselves in the pub was a sizable contingent of the Lafontaine clan, celebrating the 40th birthday of a daughter of prominent local businessman Raymond Lafontaine.

Four days later - having lost a son and two daughters-in-law who were among the revelers - Lafontaine stood near a throng of reporters on a street near the town center, watching them pepper an American railroad executive with questions.

"I wanted to see my children's killer," Lafontaine said. "And I wanted to see the killer of other people from here who didn't ask to die."

Any possible culpability on the part of the railway remains to be determined; police say their criminal investigation will proceed slowly and carefully. But it is fact that an unmanned Montreal, Maine and Atlantic freight train with 72 cars carrying shale oil turned into a runaway death machine - rolling away from its overnight parking spot, barreling for miles down an incline in the dark of night, derailing in the heart of Lac-Megantic at 1:14 a.m. on July 6, and snuffing out 50 lives when a series of explosions set off a ferocious fire.

For some, it became known as "the train of death." For others in the close-knit, French-speaking town, it was "le train d'enfer" - or "the train from hell."

Gilles Fluet, a 65-year-old retiree who used to work at a door-making factory, left the Musi-Cafe just moments before the first explosion and saw the train go by.

"It was moving at a hellish speed ... no lights, no signals, nothing at all," he said. "There was no warning. It was a black blob that came out of nowhere."

"I realized they were oil tankers and they were going to blow up, so I yelled that to my friends and I got out of there," he said. "If we had stayed where we were, we would have been roasted."

Those who were still in the pub, he said, "had no chance."

___

It's daunting to ponder the toll exacted on Lac-Megantic. Fifty dead in a town of 6,000 represents nearly 1 percent of the population - a rate that high for a big city would verge on apocalyptic.

Some residents have suggested that the train disaster is comparable in its impact on their town to how the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks affected New York City. And indeed there are similarities - sudden, deadly conflagrations; victims whose virtually vaporized remains defied easy identification; the circulation of photos of the missing, posted by relatives clinging to faint hopes that somehow their loved ones might be seen alive somewhere.

In mid-week, those hopes were largely dashed when Quebec police informed families that the people still listed as missing were presumed dead.

The victims included Eliane Parenteau, vivacious and gregarious at 93, who lived in one of the homes ravaged by the blaze.

"She always said she would never go to an old people's home and she wanted to die in her house," her son, Michel Boulanger, told the Journal de Quebec.

At the other end of the age scale, the presumed dead include the two young daughters of Talitha Coumi Begnouche - all three died in their home near the crash site. A photo of the girls, released by the family, shows them embracing - 4-year-old Alyssa with a giggly grin and 8-year-old Bianka with a soft, radiant smile.

Another victim was Guy Bolduc, a father of two children who was one of a pair of musicians performing at the Musi-Cafe. The other performer, Yvan Ricard, had taken a cigarette break outdoors when the inferno broke out, and he escaped unharmed.

"The last words he said to me were, 'Yvan, I really like playing with you. We have so much fun together,'" Ricard told the television network TVA.

Among those spared by quirks of fate was the cafe's manager, Sophie L'Heureux. She told reporters she went home around 9:30 p.m. that Friday evening, planned to return after a nap but overslept. Three of her employees are among those presumed dead, along with many of her loyal customers.

Nathalie Royer and David Isabel could have been among those doomed regulars, had it not been for home repairs they planned for later Saturday morning. The couple, both 45, left the cafe shortly after 1 a.m., with Isabel telling Royer to forgo one more drink with their friends because they had to get up early.

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