The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied by Bruce Campbell

­It has been a little over five years since the July 2013 rail disaster that thrust the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic into national headline news. A runaway train descended on the town, derailing at a curve in the track, spilling its highly combustible payload in the centre of the town, igniting the worst disaster on Canadian soil since the Halifax Explosion in 1917. Forty-seven people died (two more would commit suicide over losing loved ones in the fire), the centre of a historic town was levelled and would be contaminated by millions of litres of spilled oil. These are the basic facts that most people may recall from when the story broke. What happened since then? Who was at fault, who was responsible, who got court settlements and so forth may not be as well known.  Author Bruce Campbell, who is an authority on the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster has compiled a thorough chronicle of the events leading up to the disaster (in a word, industry deregulation), the disaster itself, its aftermath and the lengthy court cases that followed.

“The root cause of this deadly tragedy is rather a flagrant lack of systemic vigilance on the part of major players in the oil, rail and government sectors.”

Coalition des Citoyens spokesperson

At 200 pages (with photographs), the book is just the right length to hold the casual reader’s interest, but still have plenty of facts and references to stand as a handy authority on the rail disaster for years to come. Mr. Campbell writes in plain speak, keeping the full horror of the event in the forefront, principally the lasting effects on the citizens of Lac-Mégantic and the impact it had on their lives. In Chapter 8, entitled “Apocalypse” the author relates the events at the time of the actual disaster. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Two kilometres away, staff at the local hospital saw the flash and heard the explosion; they knew something terrible had happened. The hospital went into “code orange” as staff quickly prepared for the onslaught of the injured. Staff from surrounding medical centres rushed in to help.

But the hospital remained eerily quiet. A Red Cross volunteer voiced the dawning realization: “You have to understand: there are no wounded. They’re all dead.” The local parish priest, Father Steve Lemay, recalled: “I went to the hospital to try to help with the wounded. We kept waiting, and the longer we waited, the more it became clear that there would be no injuries, only death.”

Some residents risked their lives, knocking on doors to wake up their neighbours and helping them to flee. So too did the firefighters and Sûreté du Québec officers, who were on the scene within minutes of the blast.

Multiple explosions rocked the town, forming giant mushroom clouds as fiery oil poured through the downtown core, eviscerating buildings and flooding into the sewers, the lake, the river and the land. The sky above Lac-Mégantic, transformed by the light, could be seen from afar, like a strange sunrise surrounded by blackness. It was 1,650 degrees Celsius at the core of the blaze. The disaster zone was two times larger than that of the World Trade Center.

I highly recommend The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster by Bruce Campbell.  You’ll find this book very informative on what the governments of the day (Liberal or Conservative, Federal or Provincial) have (or more likely haven’t) done to ensure another Lac-Mégantic doesn’t happen. Brutally honest reading. I have added it to the 2019 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Non-Fiction.

The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster by Bruce Campbell
James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers

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