Lac-Mégantic residents recall moment of explosion

Residents in Lac-Mégantic, Que., are still trying to process the scope of the deadly explosion that razed the centre of the town of 6,000, recalling the massive fireball and waiting for word of missing friends.

Community of 6,000 struggles to deal with deaths, damage and evacuations

Survivors in Lac Megantic

9 years ago
Duration 3:15
There were some very close calls for many survivors in Lac Megantic, the CBC's Thomas Daigle reports

Residents in Lac-Mégantic, Que., are still trying to process the scope of the devastation after a train explosion razed the centre of the town of 6,000. 

Almost every resident has been affected by the disaster, from those who saw the massive fireball early Saturday to those who are waiting for word of missing friends.

'I could feel the heat on my arms'

Pharmacist Claude Charron and his wife frequently walk a bike path near the railway tracks, and they recently counted 123 rail cars go by. Charron said his wife remarked about what might happen if the train ever derailed, but he told CBC News Network on Monday that they never dreamed of anything like the scene that unfolded Saturday.

This map approximates where the damage occurred based on aerial photos of the scene. (Google/CBC)

Soon after 1 a.m. ET, his wife heard the train crash and woke him up. They headed out on their balcony, which was facing away from the crash site.

"A minute after we were on the balcony we saw the first explosion," he said. "The sky [went] red, and we saw the fire run up maybe 100 or 150 feet up in the sky."

Neighbours banged on their door saying they needed to leave. "We ran out to our car, and I could feel the heat on my arms."

Charron ran a pharmacy near the explosion, but his first concern was for his three daughters. They were all safe.

The pharmacy is still inaccessible, and security cameras show that the sprinkler system went off shortly after the explosion. He doesn't expect the building to be salvageable, but they've already rented a new location and expect to be open by Tuesday morning.

Charron said the scale of the disaster was still sinking in, and he found out early Monday that a woman who once worked at his pharmacy had died.

"I've been a pharmacist here for 43 years. I know everybody. I know everybody by their first name, and just to know that some of them have died — I don't know what to say about it," he said, choking up.

'A river of flames'

Ghislain Bisson, 52, was at home watching television when the train went off the track at the end of his street.

"I looked up at the train going at a really crazy speed," said Bisson. "It hit the first building on the corner there. I looked downtown and saw it was a river of flames going down the street."

Bisson left his apartment with his girlfriend and began knocking on neighbours' doors to bring people away from the danger zone. 

"We're going to have that view for the next two or three years, so we're not going to be able to forget," said Bisson. "It's like a memorial to the dead we're going to be able to see every day."

'It's like a nightmare'

Locals are convinced the death toll will be far higher than the 13 bodies recovered. Investigators are expanding their search for the approximately 50 people still missing.

Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and about 20 acquaintances remained unaccounted for.

About a third of the town's population has been forced from their homes.

She said she was lucky to be working that night. Otherwise, she likely would have been at a popular bar that was levelled by the blast.

"I have a friend who was smoking outside the bar when it happened, and she barely got away, so we can guess what happened to the people inside," Huot said. "It's like a nightmare. It's the worst thing I can imagine."

Karine Blanchette was a waitress at Musi-Café, a popular downtown bar and restaurant destroyed in the explosion. She was not working the night flames engulfed the lakeside town's core.

"It's very, very difficult. And today we have a lot of frustration because it's not possible that something like that happened," said Blanchette. "It's not acceptable a train company let the train without surveillance."

Bracing for bad news

CBC reporter Stephen Puddicombe said he talked to a man who was in the bar when the derailment happened, but was able to get away.

"He said he hasn't been able to sleep. All he can hear are the screams of his friends," said Puddicombe.

The multiple blasts over a span of several hours sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

A few people recalled how they darted into the streets after the explosion and ran alongside neighbours, some wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

Others who gathered outside the shelter Sunday hugged and wiped tears as they braced for bad news about unaccounted-for loved ones.

Henri-Paul Audette headed to a shelter in hopes of reuniting with his missing brother, whose apartment was next to the railroad tracks, close to the place where the train derailed.

"I haven't heard from him since the accident," Audette said. "I had thought … that I would see him."

About a third of the community was forced out of their homes.

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With files from The Canadian Press