Neither of us knew what to expect. Vi and I decided to return to the small, Canadian town that we had visited on our trip to Maine several years ago. I wanted to see how the July fire had affected the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic. 47 people died there early on July 6, 2013, when a train derailed and oil-cars exploded in flames. More than 30 buildings covering 77 acres in the town’s center were destroyed, including the town’s library and archives. Three months had passed. I expected to see some signs of recovery. What we saw, and were kept from seeing, was something altogether different.
Lac-Mégantic is a town of nearly 6,000 residents in Southeastern Québec. The twenty minute drive from the US border to that town ambles serenely past small farms, through wheat pastures and around part of the 28 mile shoreline of a lake. In the language of the Native American Abénaquis, the name that both the lake and town share means, “where the fish gather.” This lake is a source of the Chaudière River which divides the town and drains into the St Lawrence River at Québec City.
Entering Lac-Mégantic from the south on Quebec Route 161 one comes upon the junction of Frontenac and Salaberry Streets. A left onto Frontenac takes you across the river and into the downtown district. A right turn onto Salaberry leads one east, away from town. As we entered the intersection to turn left, we saw the temporary police station. It was a small, grey hut in the middle of the road with windows facing up and down the road and doors opening to either side of the street. It was large enough to hold a staff of five or six officers. One officer was monitoring the traffic entering the downtown area while another checked the traffic leaving. Only heavy, construction trucks seemed to be allowed passage.
My wife rolled down her window as an officer approached our car. “Can we get through?” She asked.
“No,” came the reply.
“Then how can we get to McDonalds?” she countered. Surly the officer wouldn’t deny us our Big Macs.
“McDonalds? I don’t know McDonalds.”
The language barrier between our English and this officer’s French was showing. Our knowledge of French being limited to the four compass points: Nord, Sud, Est and Ouest; we exited the police checkpoint and drove up Salaberry Street, looking for a detour. Eventually we drove around the town and found our destination, but I was never able to see the devastated city center.
I later learned that the heavy trucks were hauling away contaminated soil and rubble from the damaged area. The oil spill and fire had left behind many toxins. Residents and business owners were allowed to take their belongings out of that area, but they cannot return until after the clean up is finished, sometime next year. Cleanup work will continue through the winter with new construction expected to begin next spring. Optimistic forecasts are for reconstruction to be completed by the summer. Not everyone agrees with those estimates.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been contemplating the concept of giving thanks in the midst of tragedy. These people in Canada are thankful that the fire was contained and that they are able to rebuild. They have a long road ahead of them to full recovery.
Locally we have experienced our own share of tragedy. I don’t think it right to say one tragic event is “greater” than another. There are both similarities and differences between what happened here and in Canada. But, no matter the language, culture or any other differences, the human bond remains the same. All of us want healing, recovery and peace moving forward.
Guy Boulet owns a furniture shop just outside Lac-Mégantic’s contaminated zone. He also lost a sister in the fire. According to an NPR report, Boulet says people there are resigned to the idea that the healing process will take a long, long time.
“We have to be really patient. Because nobody knows exactly how long it will be. We hope nobody forgets, you know, because we will need help. We need help,” he says.
As we give thanks this month and gather near our family and friends, let us resolve to never forget those around us who have experienced loss and are hurting. No one knows how long the healing will take. Even though some things seem to be getting better, they still need your help.
Praying that this Thanksgiving finds us reaching out to comfort others,