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Life in Canadian Town After Oil Explosion and Fire

Inside the Brutal Clean-up Efforts in Lac-Megantic

In train-wrecked Lac-Megantic, basements are flooded with six feet of fuel—and above ground, it’s still too hot for rescue workers to last more than 15 minutes. Christine Pelisek reports.

Nine days after a train derailment and explosion gutted the heart of the Eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, police and firefighter crews are working non-stop under brutal conditions as they continue to hunt for bodies. So far, they have recovered 37 victims of the 50 people who went missing on July 6. Thirteen are still unaccounted for.

“There are still cars filled with gasoline,” said Sûreté du Québec Sgt. Michel Brunet about the hazardous scene. “There are still 10 to 15 buildings that have six feet of fuel in the basement. We have to empty all of them to see if there are any bodies in there.”

Over 60 firefighter and law enforcement agencies across Canada and the U.S. are aiding in the search of the so-called Red Zone, which was once a thriving block of restaurants and businesses that included the Musi-Café, a library, a real estate office, a funeral parlor, and picturesque clapboard cottages and homes, but recovery efforts have been hampered by the toxic fumes, contaminated soil and volatile chemicals.

The runaway train was carrying more than 70 cars of crude oil when it slammed into the town at 1:17 a.m. At least five of the train’s cars, owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company, exploded, spraying fire and petroleum droplets into the air. As of now, crews have pumped more than 250,000 gallons of gasoline from the site. Around 60 mangled and scorched tanker cars still remain there.

“He went outside and he saw the house at the end of the street melt.”

Meanwhile, on Monday two Lac-Megantic residents, including the owner of the Musi-Café, filed a class-action lawsuit against Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company, company chairman Edward Burkhardt, president Robert Grindrod, and train operator Tom Harding. The lawsuit seeks damages for the victim’s loved ones, those who were injured, and compensation for the business and properties lost and damaged in the blaze.

At the site, the scorching heat from the crash has also made search efforts difficult, and has sent three firefighters to the hospital with heat-related injuries. “We have to replace people every 15 minutes because it is so hot,” said Brunet. “They are working with masks and tanks.”

Sherbrooke Fire Service Chief Gaetan Drouin says they have installed showers for the workers and are being extra careful to not set another blaze. Workers are prohibited from carrying cell phones and lighters to the site. “A fire could be struck from static electricity,” he said. “We are dealing with a product that can leak into many areas.”

Most of the 40 homes destroyed by the blast no longer exist, says Brunet, so finding remains is next to impossible. “The houses have completely disappeared,” he says. “There is nothing left. Not even a book or a piece of paper.”

Some of the utility poles that were left standing “have a bizarre warped shape,” says Brunet.

Many of the businesses are still standing but are too dangerous to enter. On Sunday, work crews used heavy machinery to knock down two commercial buildings in their search for human remains because they were too shaky to enter. On Monday, crews finished searching the musi-café.

So far, crews have searched 70 percent of the commercial buildings and homes damaged by the blaze. “We will look till we find the last body,” said Brunet.

Brunet admits that some family members of the deceased are increasingly becoming impatient because their loved ones have not been recovered yet. “We are doing our best but we have to preserve the evidence,” said Brunet. “We have to be careful when finding the bodies and there is still danger on the scene.”

As the crews continue to search through the wreckage, almost all of the 2,000 people who evacuated their homes have moved back in, but there are still 186 people who are still waiting to go home because their houses or apartments were either destroyed by the explosion, too close to the buildings being checked for human remains, structurally unfit, or too chemically soaked.

Lynn Barrett is one of them. She says her home has been deemed unsafe. Last week, she was allowed to return with a police escort once to pick up clothes—but they had to check the air quality before she could enter.

After the explosion, Barrett, her husband, and 84-year-old mother were living at the Polyvalente Montignac high school on hard cots in the school’s gymnasium. However, on Sunday, she and her family and 19 other residents were relocated to hotels, hostels, and trailers acquired by the Red Cross.

Barrett, her husband, and mother are staying at Le Quiet Motel on Laval Street, about one mile from the explosion, with her Shih Tzu, Lucky.

On that fateful night, Barrett said she was in the kitchen watching television when the explosion woke her husband. “He went outside and he saw the house at the end of the street melt,” she said. “There was fire all around us. If the wind went in a different direction our house would have burned.”

Barrett said in a matter of minutes they were able to escape the blaze in their car. “When we left we didn’t even close the doors,” she said. “I really thought the house would go.”

Unlike most of the evacuees, her house was not destroyed in the blast, but where she and her family will live still remains unclear. “We have no idea when we can move back,” she says as she sits outside Le Quiet Motel, her hands visibly shaking. “I am taking it one day at a time.”

Barrett, who said the clothes she was wearing were purchased by a gift card she was given, is hoping she and her family will be placed into longer-term housing.

Even though her life remains in limbo she counts herself as fortunate. “Usually at that time of night we walk our dog by the Musi-Café,” she says. “We were lucky.”

Another evacuee at Le Quiet is 76-year-old Fernand Gilbert. Because she has no family in Canada, Gilbert, a retired logger, says the Red Cross will be housing him for the near future. He says he will be staying at the hotel until Friday and then the Red Cross will let him know where he is going next.

When the disaster occurred, Gilbert says he thought his house had been hit by lightning. “My bed started to shake,” he said. As he escaped outside he could feel “the heat of the fire on his face,” he said.

Gilbert, who keeps a stack of meal tickets in his pocket from the Red Cross, says his house only sustained minor fire damage. Like Barrett, he has no idea when he will return home. “It will be a long time,” he says sourly.

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