Quebec’s most unnatural disaster

Trains run in our blood, in this country. The historic nation-building of them, the romance of them. A soothing whistle in the nighttime, just on the edge of your dreams, rattling across landscapes rural and urban.

Trains run in our blood, in this country.

The historic nation-building of them, the romance of them. A soothing whistle in the nighttime, just on the edge of your dreams, rattling across landscapes rural and urban.

For most people it’s a vestigial memory, because we don’t ride the rails much any more — except for those of us who are train fanatics. So the thousands of track kilometres stitching Canada together from coast to coast and tundra to 49th parallel are used primarily for freight. Passenger trains must often stand aside and let them pass over shared trackage.

Cargo counts for more than humans.

At grade-level railway crossings, motorists watch the rusting behemoths clatter endlessly by, scores of cars coupled together as if without end, the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of flat cars and tank cars, box cars and gondola cars, hoppers and heaters and meat-racks. Rarely do we stop to wonder what’s inside: the flammables, the hazardous and poisonous chemicals that roll through residential areas — unlike the beltway lines that tend to circuit a city or a town.

Trains are not always so benign.

In Ontario, the Mississauga train derailment in 1979 opened a lot of eyes to dangers lurking, coming awfully close, and how colossal catastrophe could hinge on something as small as an improperly lubricated wheel bearing. That one was on the 33rd car of a 106-car Canadian Pacific freight train, creating a “hot box’’ crisis — friction burning right through the axle, wheel-set falling off, and chunks of the train jumping the track close to a suburban intersection. Several tank cars filled with propane burst into flames, the fireball shooting 1,500 up in the sky. But the greater worry was ruptured containers spewing a toxic stew into the air: chlorine and caustic soda. Some 200,000 residents were forced to blow, the largest peacetime evacuation in North America until Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans.

By the grace of God, nobody died.

Tiny Lac-Mégantic, Que., was not so lucky. In the early hours of Saturday morning, Lac-Mégantic was the unluckiest town in the world.

A runaway freight train? How can that happen, except in a Hollywood disaster movie, where logic and reality are sacrificed to entertainment?

On a beautiful summer night, we are to believe, 73 driverless cars of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway somehow broke loose on a siding near Nantes, 12 km west of town, and began rolling quietly, unnoticed, down the hill, gathering speed under no power other than gravity, aiming at the heart of an unsuspecting community at the bottom.

The brakes and safety system were apparently functional, nothing to worry about, when the engineer had departed just before midnight for a comfortable bed at a local hotel. A replacement was slated to come aboard later during the night.

If there were anti-derail safety devices on the track — designed to guide cars off the rails at selected spots, as protection against collisions — they clearly did not work.

Heedless, that bulk of metal and — most ruinously, crude oil tankers — escalated towards Lac-Mégantic, hurtling into the downtown district, its locomotive breaking free at some point before the crash, a mere nine metres from the Musi-Café, a popular and Saturday-night crowded bar.

Those fortunate to escape the resulting inferno fled on foot, some even jumping into boats that roared off into the waters offshore, beyond the explosions and flames and eye-singing heat. The sky, said residents, turned from black to vivid orange and red — the colours of warning-label danger, still so hellfire hot late Sunday afternoon that firefighters who’d rushed to the scene from as far away as Sherbrooke and Maine, across the border, could approach no closer than 150 metres distant of two fuel cars that remained burning.

The guts of Lac-Mégantic have been spilled, reduced to ashes. All those suburban commercial totems — the Dollarama store, the Metro supermarket — businesses and restaurants razed, on the scorched earth of a five-square-km central district. Worst of all, besides the five bodies recovered by last night, upwards of 40 people still missing, perhaps “vaporized’’ in the fireball — many of them, it seems, Musi-Café patrons who never saw death coming.

If loved ones in Lac-Mégantic haven’t come home yet, they may never be coming home.

Bewildered family members have been asked to collect DNA samples and detailed records to assist in identifying remains — yet officials warn there may be precious few remains, the ashes left behind when a deceased is cremated rather than buried.

Fire is so violent, so lethal. Many people who’ve never had a close encounter with flames and heat that melts the eyeballs and billowing smoke that chars the lungs don’t understand that.

The pleas for information, any sign of a missing person being sought, have spread across social media, Facebook and the like, whereas a dozen years ago, in the stunned aftermath of 9/11, searchers put up photographs and flyers around lower Manhattan. There were only a couple of happy reunions then, survivors pulled miraculously from the rubble. It looks just as gloomy for these victims — in a town with a population of only 6,000.

I don’t know if it’s right or wrong for politicians — the premier, the prime minster, the leader of the federal NDP Opposition — to wander into this grievously wounded pyre of a community, to see for themselves. Perhaps their presence will give some small comfort. Nowhere near as much as the Red Cross and volunteers, with 2,000 residents at least temporarily homeless. More crucial is that they use their influence to demand answers as to how such a calamity could have occurred.

We’ve seen horrible flooding in this country recently. We understand devastating bushfires and avalanches and ice-storms.

But this was no natural disaster; not an act of God nor an act of terrorism, from the information available thus far.

Accident or carelessness or simply unfathomable fate — death train and doomed town.

Rosie DiManno is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist.