La Longue Nuit de Mégantic

In this dark, yet beautifully shot series, photographer Michel Huneault explores the aftermath of the tragic explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec—the deadliest Canadian railway disaster in the last century.

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Nov 22 2013, 5:00pm


All photos by Michel Huneault / Cosmos / Polaris

It was dawn on a warm summer night in Lac-Mégantic when a stranger stopped me in the streets. I asked if he was okay. Visibly shaken, the man replied: “No. My town just got wiped out by a train.”

The date was July 10 and I had arrived in Mégantic four days earlier, just a few hours after an unattended cargo train filled with almost 8 million litres of crude oil derailed and exploded, creating a blast radius of one kilometre in the heart of this small 6000 person town. 47 people were killed. A devastating ratio when you think about it—that’s one out of every 128 residents dead in a single night, making it Canada’s deadliest train disaster in almost 150 years.

By the time I met Pierre (the stranger who stopped me on the street), the community’s shock and adrenaline of the first few days were finally starting to subside and the event was sinking in. Pierre and I talked for twenty minutes. Then another man, Frédéric, came to tell me his story. We talked about his job next to the Musi-Café—the site near heart of the blast where most lives were taken—and how he “knew all of the victims in one way or another. In such a small town, everyone knows everybody.” It was a story I’d literally hear everywhere, like a constant, omnipresent, sad and numbing murmur.

Over a period of three months I visited Mégantic six more times. I spent the bulk of my nights documenting the calm eeriness of a community for whom everything changed one night at 1:15 AM. As weeks passed, locals quickly began to recognize me in the streets, many of them sharing their trauma while also discussing how the situation evolved for them throughout the summer.

During my time in Mégantic I came to realize two things. First, the total number of people killed represent much more than its straightforward sum. In a small, close-knit community like Mégantic, a person is at once somebody’s sibling, the coach of a school sports team, the client you do accounting for, the former lover of a few others. When multiplied as such, the victims form a thick constellation of multiple mourning, rapidly overshadowing the whole community.

The other thing I learned is that everyone has a different story of survival, and his or her own way of coping (or not) with a confusing array of feelings and emotions evolving through time: incredulity, closeness with strangers, sadness, rage, resignation, hope and, sometimes, indifference. Understanding the depth of the incident starts with these personal experiences.

Since day one, there have been serious concerns about the impact on the adjacent Chaudière River. More then 100,000 litres of the 5.7 million litres of crude oil spilled on July 6 went directly into the river, followed by the millions of litres of contaminated water used to extinguished the fire. Even today, the red zone’s contaminated site continues to leak slowly into the river. The unusual and still misunderstood explosive cocktail of oil and chemicals carried by the train brings many unanswered questions, including what the long term impact on the ecosystem and on the human population will be.

As of late October, funerals of the last victims were still pending, often postponed as the return of their remains from the coroner’s labs are repetitively delayed. “We are always waiting,” said one local, Annie. “Waiting for mourning, for explanations, for the future... information comes in one drop at a time, it’s unclear, too often full of contradictions. This uncertainty is also darkness.”

Yves chose Lac Mégantic for his retirement, fourteen months before it was hit by the train. “On that night, my peaceful city was criminally bombed by a 72 carriage-long oil train. So I escaped and went away for the summer,” he said. “I have so much rage inside. I am angry at this criminal act, at the lack of information. I am not sure what to do with it, but I want my rage to be useful, I want the population to realize this was not an accident, we are all culprits: our oil-based society is, our corporations are. This event needs to be a wakeup call.”

Gerald owns a commercial building in the red zone, not far from where Pierre’s brother lived, about 75 metres from where the train crashed. His building is untouched, but will remain closed for at least a year due to the decontamination work going on. Like many owners of downtown's intact but contaminated businesses, Gerald is now stuck in an insurance grey zone. Most owners told me they would have preferred their business burn down as the lengthy insurance negotiation and lack of clarity for the future are too much of a burden.

Pierre lost his brother in the disaster. “My brother didn’t leave anything behind, we have no memories of him,” he said. “It’s quite frustrating.” One of the only items to remind him of his brother is his golf cap, still hanging in the hall of their family house. Since 2002, he had grown close to his brother even though he lived in neighboring Nantes, a 20 minute drive away. “There’s a slope after the roundabout, just before entering Lac-Mégantic. This is where it hits me the hardest. Each time, I realize that I won’t be seeing my brother.”

Annie lives few blocks from Yves, but she was camping ten kilometers away when the train struck. When she saw the sky light up, like many others she thought that it was the town’s melamine plant that had exploded. Luckily her two sons, aged 23 and 22, were physically unharmed. "It’s not mentioned often, but the ones that most people in town call 'young bums' saved many lives that night. They were downtown at the time of the explosion, they knocked on doors, woke people up, told them to run. They are the saviours, yet we don’t hear enough about it.” Annie continued, “I am worried for our youth, they need to see hope here, they have too much to deal with right now, many just want to leave."

On the first night I went for a walk towards the lake to try and make sense of it all. As I drifted down the hill, I crossed the last part of the very railway the train travelled on before derailing. That’s when it became obvious to me: night will never be the same for Méganticois. It’s already a time when buried memories erupt, recurring nightmares kick in, when tranquility brings about reflection and intimacy. Now, and for an undetermined while, it would bring back painful memories of the train wreck, the fire and the darkness it brought along.

If you'd like to donate to the Red Cross Lac Mégantic Support Fund, click here

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