News / Canada

Anger simmers in Lac-Megantic after train disaster

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - A man who lost his son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the fiery Quebec train crash was so angry he was determined to discuss rail safety with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, face to face.

The prime minister toured the Lac-Megantic devastation Sunday and met locals, but Raymond Lafontaine was left disappointed when they didn't get to meet.

Lafontaine could do little to contain his rage Monday as he asked how a runaway train carrying crude oil could rumble into a community and set off massive explosions, razing its downtown sector. Fuel also spilled from tankers into the nearby Chaudiere River, prompting some local water advisories.

"Get those dangerous products out from behind our homes," he said in front of a shelter for residents whose homes were evacuated following the derailment.

"Today I have the opportunity to speak and tell our managers... 'You're not just here for politics, you're here to protect us and to stop polluting our environment.' "

Anger like this is easy to find in Lac-Megantic.

Some locals are quick to say the railroad tracks that run through town have long been in poor condition. Others can't believe existing regulations would even allow trains to carry enough crude oil to wipe part of their community off the map.

The train had been left unattended at the top of a hill in an adjacent municipality before it broke loose.

"It's not acceptable that a company (can) transport live bombs and they don't watch the train — it's just inconceivable," said Karine Blanchette, a waitress who lost three co-workers and many friends when fireballs obliterated her workplace, the popular Musi-Cafe bar.

"We have a lot of work to do here. Emotional work, environmental work, rebuilding (work) — it's a nightmare."

The railway that operates the train has said its locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said the driver had locked the brakes before leaving.

That shutdown released the air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place, the company has said.

The night of the derailment, firefighters in a nearby town intervened to put out a blaze that sent flames shooting out of the locomotive's chimney. The fire crew says it shut off the engine, as per standard operating procedure when fighting such a blaze on a train.

The fire department in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before it hurtled toward Lac-Megantic, says it was the fourth time it had been called in to fight a fire on the company's trains in the last eight years.

The 10-year-old rail company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, has maintained that it has a good safety record.

Edward Burkhardt, the president of the railway's parent company Rail World Inc., plans to visit Lac-Megantic on Tuesday.

He might be in for a rude welcome because his firm has been the subject of much of the frustration in this community.

Complaints about the company have ranged from lack of visibility, to longer-term concerns about safety, to the fact that a press release written in French appeared sloppily translated and loaded with errors.

The manager of the Musi-Cafe, who lost friends and colleagues in the explosions, said Monday her anger is directed toward the railway company.

"Enormously," said Sophie L'Heureux, who added that security procedures are clearly inadequate.

She believes the railway has been laying low since the incident because it knows it did something wrong. The federal Transportation Safety Board and the provincial police are investigating.

Lafontaine said it's time for politicians to take a stand and fix the system.

Early Saturday morning, Lafontaine's sons, Gaetan and Christian, were outside the Musi-Cafe when they heard the train rushing toward town.

Gaetan darted inside to get his wife, Joannie. The couple has not been seen since.

Lafontaine said his daughter-in-law, Karine, also disappeared in the blast as well as his receptionist, Marie-Noelle.

The owner of a local excavation company had hoped to meet Harper in person Sunday. He wanted to ask him to use his power to address the serious security concerns around the rail transportation of dangerous materials, like crude oil.

"He didn't give me the chance to speak with him," said Lafontaine, who insisted he made a formal request Sunday to meet with Harper, but didn't explain how he made the plea and whom he presented it to.

Asked whether it had received such a request from Lafontaine, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said in an email that he wasn't aware of it.

"The prime minister met with hundreds of people (Sunday) on a visit that was arranged at the last minute," said spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

"I hope it won't be held against the prime minister that he wasn't able to meet with everyone."

More on Metronews.ca