A 911 dispatcher awakened Lac-Mégantic fire Chief Denis Lauzon from his sleep shortly after 1 a.m. on July 6, 2013, to tell him there was a house fire in the town of 6,000 people. But when the chief looked out his front door to face a wall of flame and explosions a few blocks away, he knew it was far worse.
"I said, 'Okay, we're in hell,'" Chief Lauzon said.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail and in a speech before a gathering of leaders of the Teamsters Rail Conference Canada, Chief Lauzon gave a firsthand account of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, when an unattended Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train of 72 oil tank cars rolled into the Quebec town at 101 km/h and exploded, killing 47 people in the worst rail accident in modern Canadian history.
Chief Lauzon led 1,000 firefighters from 80 departments from Quebec, Ontario and Maine in the fight against the blaze, which destroyed much of the town's centre and burned for two days.
As head of the Lac-Mégantic fire department, Chief Lauzon, now 52, commanded a brigade of 47 volunteer firefighters and six fire trucks, including four pumpers. Among the firefighters were electricians, mechanics and even a dentist. Several of the crew had been on the job only 10 days. Chief Lauzon said one man killed himself in the fire's aftermath.
A firefighter for three decades and a Lac-Mégantic resident for 13 years, Chief Lauzon said it was hard to stand back with his crews and watch more than 50 tank cars of oil explode and burn.
"We were raised and born to be firemen and to extinguish a fire. But that fire we couldn't extinguish," Chief Lauzon said. "We had to make sure everybody was evacuated. We didn't have enough foam so we had to bring in foam. So we didn't do nothing. But we had to make sure people were evacuated."
Some of his crew knocked over a small garage to keep the fire from jumping to a row of houses. Another firefighter raced to the marina and woke four people who were sleeping on their boats as burning crude filled sewers and basements and flowed into the lake.
"There was no rescue to perform," he said. "The 47 people were at the wrong place at the wrong moment. They couldn't survive that type of fire."
At 3:45 a.m., the explosions had stopped and Chief Lauzon deemed it safe for his crews to advance. But then another tank car exploded and firefighters ran for cover from the shock wave and blast of intense heat. It wasn't until Saturday morning that the chief and his firefighters were able to advance on the burning buildings and begin applying foam, some of which was trucked in from a refinery near Quebec City.
"This was the main goal – to have everyone go back home safe and alive," he said.
The train carried highly explosive crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota. Since the tragedy, rail regulators in Canada and the United States have reduced maximum speeds for trains carrying dangerous goods, and changed the way more volatile oil is labelled and handled. They have also ordered a gradual phaseout of the older tank cars involved in Lac-Mégantic.
But the amount of crude oil being moved on railroads is soaring amid a lack of pipeline capacity and the exploitation of new oil fields in the United States.
A Globe and Mail investigation revealed the oil that blew up in Lac-Mégantic was far more more explosive than most, yet it was handled no differently. Chief Lauzon said the crude had a volatility rating that was close to gasoline.
When the 911 dispatcher told him a train was on fire, he knew oil was involved. But the ferocity of the explosions was a sign it was something more volatile; he assumed it was propane, which he regularly saw being hauled through the town.
"I have a bad habit – I read those hazardous material cards [on tank cars]. I knew that we had 1267 crude oil. I was wondering if we had 1075, which is propane," he said.
Today, the contaminated soil is still being removed from where Lac-Mégantic's downtown once stood, but there are signs of recovery. The library that burned has been rebuilt and open for three weeks. A second grocery store is open, and on Wednesday, a new bridge opened that connects the old town with the newer homes across the lake in the southeastern part of Quebec.
Chief Lauzon said when he walks around town these days, residents are grateful to him. Like everybody in Lac-Mégantic, he knew many of the victims. He is on a medical leave from his job, but says he has no trouble standing up and talking about the morning the town burned, and speaking for his neighbours, alive and dead.
"It was easy," he said, "because we were the victims."