When I town I loved burned down, or, when Heaven was visited by Hell


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

An epic fireball exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, razing over thirty buildings and incinerating everything it its trail of destruction and death. A runaway 72-wagon locomotive, loaded with crude oil and operated by The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, had dislodged after its conductor parked it about 12 kilometers away from Lac-Mégantic.

It is Ground Zero. The train of death, with its incendiary load, floods the town, its deadly blast sending a towering cloud of toxic fumes into the atmosphere. A wave of fire scorches everything in its path.

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Photo: Fire from a train explosion is seen in Lac Megantic, July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Lac-Mégantic is picturesque town. Three hours east of Montreal, Canada, it is a voyage into a different world. It’s postcard perfect. Surrounded by dense forests stretching to the horizon, undisturbed by millennia of civilisation, it is as close to nature as one can get without actually taking an isolated hike into the countryside. The lake is alive and pristine, fed by streams and rivers from surrounding mountains; it spans over 25 kilometers. It is a special place, a retreat from the bustling metropolis of life.

As we have done for the past two decades, I, my wife Lucie and my kids had rented a cottage on its serene shores. It is the birthplace of my mother-in-law, Louise Grondin, and our annual retreat to meet with our family here.

We swam, fished, canoed and kayaked in this lake. We walked the streets, dropped in to see my wife’s uncle and godfather, the local barber Louis; chatted to the people we knew in the stores and browsed through the local organic market.

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Photo: Kami and Shanti canoe in the magical Lac-Mégantic. (Jay Naidoo)

People are always friendly and generous. They are proud that Lucie, a writer and journalist, who brought the South African story of democratic transition to Québec, is of local stock. They admire Mandela, and his overflowing compassion and love are felt here.

It was a tightly knit community. Now all of that is gone, and with it a lifetime of happy memories.

Friday 5 July was our last day at the lake. It was a beautiful summer’s day. Our kids packed up and went into town to have lunch at their favourite spot, Musi-Café, a bar/restaurant where the teenagers and youth hang out. It was always difficult to tear oneself away from such a haven of peace and beauty.

That evening, we drove to the next village, the beautiful and petite Notre-Dame-des-Bois, in the Eastern Townships, where my mother-in-law has her home, a village at the foot of Mont Megantic. It was a beautiful summer’s evening. We were preparing a delicious meal to celebrate the 77th birthday of her boyfriend, Jacques Gauthier.

At midnight we lit a bonfire. Shanti, my daughter, in the absence of marshmallows, was roasting freshly picked strawberries soaked in liqueur. We marvelled at the star-studded sky, the magnificence of the Milky Way.

We were completely unaware of the catastrophe unfolding in the town we had just left.

Watch: Lac-Mégantic explosion

Now the painstaking forensic work is scrambling through the incinerated remains, piecing together the tragic story that has shocked a community and the nation. The search for more bodies continues. Many in the community have had to be evacuated to safety. Musi-Café, the crowded bar where our kids hang out, was in its epicenter. Over sixty people are missing, presumed dead, as towering flames burnt their path of destruction.

As I navigate through what happened, the detail becomes grey. On 5 July at 11.30pm, the train driver stopped a train carrying 72 tankers filled with crude oil and five locomotives in Nantes. There was a change of shift. He went to a nearby hotel to sleep. The train was left unattended. At 11:35am, a citizen of Nantes called 911 reporting a fire. Firefighters arrived and put out a blaze. After the firefighters left, the train rolled 12km unmanned and exploded at 1:15am. Rail company officials issued two bland statements: “The train had been immobilised in a neighboring village before a scheduled crew change, but for an unknown reason, had then started rolling downhill into Lac-Mégantic.”

Eyewitnesses later said that by the time the driverless train reached the town, it was travelling at considerable speed.

The ferocious firestorm of fire burnt lives and the dreams of a tight knitted community. There is not a family unaffected. Several people we know are missing or been confirmed dead. In their grief there are more unanswered questions than answers. Why was a train with such a dangerous and flammable cargo left unattended? Was there an emergency call made at 11.30? Was the fire engine called out at Nantes to put out a fire in the locomotive while it was parked at Nantes? Why was no evacuation order given in Lac-Mégantic for over an hour? Was there willful negligence?

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Photo: iconic image of destruction by David Charron

Police are trying to find missing people: a nearby bar was crowded at the time of the blast. The fires have been so intense and have burnt for so long that Québec police warn some bodies may never be recovered. The bodies that have been found are so charred they have been sent to Montreal for identification, police say. Two of five cars that exploded were still ablaze earlier on Sunday. A one-kilometer exclusion zone was set up amid fears of more pressurised containers exploding.

Maine & Atlantic Railway was founded in January of 2003. According to the company’s website, it owns over 510 route miles of track, serving customers in Québec, Maine, Vermont and New Brunswick. Its volumes it transported in 2012 increased from 14,300 barrels to over a million barrels; a 28,000% increase. Was there a requisite increase in surveillance and inspection? Its philosophy – maximise productivity and reduce costs – makes me wonder.

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Photo: The wreckage of a train is pictured after an explosion in Lac Megantic July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Raymond Lafontaine, an entrepreneur in the region, lost his son, two daughters-in-law and his secretary. He is devastated. Now seven children are orphaned. “In 2013, as an employer, we have many laws to follow. We have to be 100% accountable. But for companies coming from the US, they are allowed to do as they please. They use tracks that are not maintained properly and are overloaded. A week ago there was a derailment and 13,000 liters of petroleum was spilt. On another occasion a piece of track was missing in Scottstown. This is not normal. Our governments are just politicking. They should be taking care of citizens like fathers take care of families. It’s not normal that petrol trains go from west of the US to east of Canada trough villages like Lac-Mégantic and kill our children. They are loaded guns.”

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Photo: Lac Megantic, morning after, July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Authorities have promised comprehensive investigations. But for many, this is too late. Loved ones are lost. Renowned journalist Yves Boisvert said, “What happened in Lac-Mégantic is without precedent at many levels. It’s one of the worst catastrophic and deadly fires in Quebec; one of the gravest railroad disasters; and a major ecological accident. All at the same time.”

It is a town where hope has been vanquished. Parents and family members mill around, hoping that the worst will not materialise. Sixty people are missing and there is no confirmation until a laborious forensic study is done.

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Photo: A man console his friend at the Polyvanlente Montignac, the school sheltering the people who were forced to leave their houses after the explosion, in Lac Megantic, July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

I understand the grief and the anger. Are our governments today capable of protecting our interests from powerful companies?

I wonder as I see the ferment erupting around the world as the anger rises from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, from Delhi, Johannesburg to Cairo, whether governments will once again return to representing the interests of ordinary citizens who live simple lives; lives that can be so devastated by the human greed that often puts profits before people.

Today I will go to pay my respects to friends and a community in grief. DM