When the runaway ghost train rolled into the heart of town and detonated like a bomb, levelling the entire historic central district of pretty Lac-Mégantic, Que., survivors say that life or death depended on where you happened to be standing.
A day after the conflagration which destroyed at least 30 buildings, including a packed bar, apartments and all the town’s archives, fire still raged. With one confirmed dead, hope was diminishing for dozens of people who remained missing. Medical officials reported almost no injuries. Those who failed to escape probably did not survive to seek treatment.
Many of those missing were indoors, such as the patrons of the Musi-Café bar who filled the building when 73 driverless train cars rolled in out of control at 1:15 a.m. ET Saturday morning.
Those who were outside when the train failed to negotiate a bend had a chance. Some survivors were out for a smoke. Some were going home after a enjoying a few drinks at a packed bar near the epicentre of the explosion. Others out for a stroll ended up running just a metre or two ahead of a river of fire – tons of burning crude oil flowing down city streets and into the lake.
So far, the Surêté du Québec is confirming only one death and refusing to validate reports that anywhere between 50 and 80 people are missing. An officer speaking on condition of anonymity Saturday afternoon told a Globe and Mail reporter he had 50 names on his list. Agence France-Presse put the number at 80.
In the final police briefing for Saturday, Lieutenant Guy Lapointe would say only: “There is one confirmed death. But we expect others.”
Those who were on the scene when the immense fireball turned buildings into piles of ash have no doubt the death toll will be big.
" Everybody who didn’t make it back is dead," predicted Frédérique Mailloux, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom, who said six of her friends are missing. “I have cried every tear in my body.”
Nearly two square kilometres of the downtown were razed, according to Fire Chief Denis Lauzon. “The scene is like one you see after a big forest fire. There are only parts of the buildings left, trees have been completely burnt, there is no grass left, the cars are charred. This is total destruction.”
Earlier, provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet told a news conference: “Our investigators are trying to track down family members, so we can’t give the identity of this (dead) person, but at this time we can confirm one person has died.”
Mr. Brunet said authorities have been told “many” people have been reported missing.
“We’re told some people are missing but they may just be out of town or on vacation,” Mr. Brunet said.
“We’re checking all that, so I can’t tell you at the moment whether there are any victims or people who are injured.”
Relatives in the tourist town of 6,000 full-time residents were already starting to grieve. At a community centre, Jacques Bolduc and Solange Gaudreault emerged after providing a DNA sample to potentially identify their son, Guy Bolduc, a 23-year-old singer who was performing at the bar.
“Our boy wanted so much to live,” Mr. Bolduc told Radio-Canada. “The police told us there is no hope. The train exploded 30 feet from the (Musi-Café) bar.”
Bernard Théberge, 44, a cook who lives on the outskirts of Lac-Mégantic, was out with his friends at the Musi-Café, one of the most popular hangouts in town and the last known whereabouts of many of the missing. The Musi-Café is a few metres from where the tracks cross Frontenac Street, Lac-Mégantic’s main street.
Mr. Théberge was on the outside patio in front of the café smoking a cigarette when the derailment happened. He heard the train coming and knew right away that something was wrong.
“It was going way too fast,” said Mr. Théberge. "I saw a wall of fire go up. People got up on the outside patio. I grabbed my bike, which was just on the railing of the terrasse. I started pedaling and then I stopped and turned around. I saw that there were all those people inside and I knew right away that it would be impossible for them to get out.
Mr. Théberge said he tried to go around front to help people escape “but there was just fire everywhere.”
"I just pedaled away, but I know a lot of people didn’t make it out. There were maybe 60 people inside. “This is a first. Smoking saved my life,” he said with a voice raspy from the heat and smoke. His right arm was bandaged for the second-degree burns.
At a tent at the corner of Frontenac and Lemieux streets in the afternoon, paramedics sat idly in the torrid heat with no one to help. Residents gathered to await news of survivors, which never came.