'That night, it was a kind of hell. The sky was on fire': The complete story of the Lac-Megantic freight train inferno that killed 50 and wiped Quebec town off the map

First victim identified as 93-year-old but as police confirm 50 dead, only 20 bodies have been pulled from the rubble

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Mario Durand was going to order another beer but decided to walk home instead.

When he left the Musi-Café around 1am on Saturday morning, the downtown nightclub was packed. A group of rock musicians arrived at the club a few hours earlier and were midway through a set as Durand stepped out the front door and onto Frontenac St.

Twenty minutes later, the Musi-Café was obliterated. Like most of downtown, it stood in the path of an exploding freight train that spit clouds of fire throughout the middle of Lac-Megantic—a logging town in Quebec’s Appalachian Mountains. The train came barreling into town towing 73 cars of crude oil before toppling over and spilling rivers of the thick fuel onto the surrounding streets.

Police say 50 were killed in the explosion but, in the days since the fatal derailment, just 20 bodies have been pulled from the wreckage. Only one victim has been positively identified, 93-year-old Eliane Parenteau who lived downtown. Determining who the rest are could take months, according to the Quebec coroner’s office.

Had Durand ordered that beer, he might be among the dead. It’s not something he’s comfortable talking about. He’s also unsure exactly how many friends he left behind that night.

“I don’t know, it just, it’s tough to know what to say,” he said Sunday, scratching his white beard. “I knew a lot of people in that bar. I was a regular. They called me Abraham, no one called me Mario they all called me Abraham. We were close.”

Durand was evacuated from his home just a few hours after the derailment—which displaced 2,000 of the city’s 6,000 residents. For three days he lived in the local high school, sleeping in a dimly lit hallway on a cot next to 160 of his neighbours. He spent much of that time sitting alone on a bench outside the building, smoking cigarettes and staring into the parking lot.

On Tuesday he was among the 1,200 allowed back in their homes. That day dozens boarded yellow buses in the high school parking lot and anxiously prepared to go back to the places they fled just a few days earlier. The air quality in their neighborhoods is finally back to normal after oil fumes made it dangerous to breathe until late Monday.

Going home is a relief for some but, for others, a lingering reminder of what was lost in the fire.

“There’s not much to go back to,” said Thérèse Lachance, who lived just metres from the blast. “My street was leveled and maybe four, five of my neighbours are dead. They’re the people you live with and now they’re dead. I grew up downtown. Now it’s gone.”

The destruction to downtown is absolute. The library, the city archives and most of the turn-of-the century brick buildings that lined Frontenac St. are in ruins. There’s a crater where freight trains once cut across Laval St. dozens of times each day. It’s surrounded by mounds of brick and broken glass.

Oil is everywhere. It seeped into the sewer system—blowing entire sections of it apart—into the soil, the grass, onto houses but also into the Chaudiere River. The pollution has forced towns as far as 80 kilometres from Lac-Megantic to issue water advisories until the full extent of the damage is known.

“That night, it was a kind of hell. The sky was on fire,” said Denis Lauzon, the chief of Lac Megantic’s volunteer fire department. “I remember people were running everywhere, they were screaming and running. So before we could even get to the fire we had to make sure people got to a safe place.”

Lauzon was on the scene moments after the fatal explosion. His small team of volunteers quickly got to work dosing the wrecked tankers with their hoses but the explosions continued. By 4 a.m. another explosion rocked the town, mushrooming into the night sky.

“I stepped outside and saw a rolling wall of fire come at my house,” said 83-year-old Paul Leclerc, who lived next to the tracks. “I got in my car, turned the corner and looked back. My house was gone. It disappeared into the flames.”

About 150 firefighters were called in from neighbouring communities to secure downtown. It took them almost two days to get the blaze under control and most only stopped working to sleep for an hour or two.

The blast site continues to pose challenges for the 14 crime scene investigators tasked with retrieving whatever human remains they can. Until Tuesday, much of the site was still volatile. Two investigators had to be hospitalized Monday with minor injuries from exposure to the still-smoldering fuel tankers, according to a spokesperson for Quebec’s provincial police

It’s also possible bodies are buried beneath the wrecked houses and some could have evaporated, according to Quebec coroner spokesperson Genvieve Guilbault. Guilbault said Tuesday that townspeople have stepped forward to help I.D. the remains of their loved ones. They bring baseball caps, toothbrushes, razors and anything else that could contain traces of the victims’ DNA. Others have handed dental records over to investigators.

While the search for the dead remains challenging, the probe into exactly what caused the unmanned locomotive to crash is rapidly yielding results. Investigators from Canada’s Transport Safety Board have recovered two black boxes from the train and began interviewing its crew earlier this week.

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the derailment and have interviewed the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic—the company that owned and operated the runaway train.

Tom Harding, the train’s engineer, parked it about 11 kilometres outside of town around 11:25pm Friday. Minutes after he retired from his 12 hour shift, the locomotive caught fire because of a leak in one its fuel lines—according to investigators.

The Nantes fire department arrived on scene at about 11:42pm and extinguished the blaze in half an hour, shutting off the engine in the process. It’s possible that would have cause the train’s hydraulic brakes to release, which shouldn’t have been a problem if its hand brakes were properly applied.

Sometime after the locomotive fire was extinguished, it began to roll down an incline gaining speed under its own weight. By 1:15am, the first explosions were reported in Lac-Megantic.

When MMA chairman Ed Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Megantic Wednesday, he said Harding may not have properly applied the locomotive’s hand brakes. His statement contradicted earlier claims he made that the train had been tampered with.

Locals hurled insults at Burkhardt as he walked through town Wednesday, with some trying to push past the police who guarded him. After answering questions from the media, the chairman was taken away into the back of a squad car and questioned by police.

“It’s a tragic event and we are heartbroken over this,” Burkhardt said Wednesday. ”It should never have happened… I feel personally and absolutely rotten about this.”

But for the people still reeling from Saturday’s tragic explosion, Burkhardt’s contrition means very little.

 “He can go to hell and so can his god damn train,” said Denis Couture, a 50-year-old handyman who lost his neighbour in the blast. “We don’t want his train anymore, we don’t want it passing through our town.”

Christopher Curtis is a correspondent with The Montreal Gazette