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Comment: September 2013

I was in Nova Scotia for a couple of days of vacation in July when stories started pouring into my BlackBerry about a train derailment and fire in Quebec.

September 9, 2013  By Laura King

I was in Nova Scotia for a couple of days of vacation in July when stories started pouring into my BlackBerry about a train derailment and fire in Quebec.

The first Canadian Press story landed Saturday morning, July 6, at about 6 a.m. It was five paragraphs long. “Firefighters in Quebec’s Eastern Townships are battling a major blaze in Lac-Megantic, 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

“A train carrying crude oil jumped the tracks this morning, causing several of the 73 cars to explode.

“The fire spread to a number of homes, and hundreds of evacuations have been ordered.


“Flames were visible for several kilometres, and firefighters from nearby municipalities have been called in.

“So far, it’s not known if there are any casualties.”

The second story, shortly after 10 a.m., was more detailed.

“A large swath of a Quebec town was demolished on Saturday after a train derailment sparked several explosions and a blaze that sent spectacular flames shooting metres into the sky.

“Up to 1,000 people were evacuated in Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

“Some people were reported missing, although Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said it was too early to say if there were casualties.”

We know now that there were 47 fatalities and that the devastation is incomprehensible.

Having lost most of my French-speaking ability after leaving Ottawa almost 15 years ago, I went looking for a freelance reporter to interview people and write the story and found – through contacts at The Canadian Press – Sean Farrell in Montreal, a stringer for The Associated Press who was in Lac-Megantic and saw first hand the horror.

As expected, Farrell had trouble reaching anyone connected to the fire service in Lac-Megantic, so I emailed Division Chief Gary Barnes in Gatineau, to see if he could help.

Remarkably, two teams from Gatineau had been to Lac-Megantic and Barnes put us in touch with District Chief Gilles Vekeman, whose description of his crew’s experience is spelled out in Farrell’s story on page 10.

Two days after the first stories landed about Lac-Megantic, I started getting emails from home about a nasty storm in Toronto that was wreaking havoc on the rush-hour commute. While there were no fatalities and the event was more of an inconvenience than a disaster, Toronto firefighters responded to more than 1,100 calls, including the rescue of hundreds of people from a stranded GO Train. It’s hard for those outside the GTA to fathom the chaos that ensues when the region’s transportation system is shuttered; hundreds of thousands of people are affected. Toronto Deputy Chief Debbie Higgins was in the city’s communications centre that night and provides fantastic detail in her story on page 26 about how TFS handled the call volume.

These compelling stories, along with our regular columns and training features, are followed on page 63 by our TechSmart supplement, in which assistant editor Olivia D’Orazio explores what’s new in fire and rescue equipment, from lighter hoses to a state-of-the-art firefighter tracking system.

Lots of good reading from cover to cover.

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