PARIS — The high school where more than a dozen Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students were welcomed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in the 1990s has become a Red Cross shelter for thousands after a deadly train derailment last weekend.
For about five years in the 1990s, some 15 French-language students from Oxford Hills and English-language students from Polyvalente Montignac high school in Lac-Megantic visited each other.
“We would go up in March, always during maple syrup time,” said Patricia Quinn, a French teacher retired from Oxford Hills. She organized the exchange trips each spring with Raymond St. Laurent, her Lac-Megantic English teacher counterpart.
On July 6, an unattended, 73-car freight train carrying crude oil rolled into the heart of the town, derailed and wiped out more than 30 buildings, including a popular club where young people were gathered.
“I kept thinking about (St. Laurent)," Quinn said. "I called him yesterday. He said a lot of his (former) students were partying and got killed."
So far, 24 people have been confirmed dead and dozens more of the 6,000 residents are missing after many of the tanks caught fire and exploded. The Musi-Cafe bar and the town library were among the dozens of buildings that were destroyed.
Although it has been a decade or more since the students have visited each others' schools, the news of the disaster hit hard for Quinn.
"They're our neighbor. They're very close to us," she said. The town is about 20 miles north of Coburn Gore on the Canadian border in Franklin County.
The school's relationship began after St. Laurent was unable to establish an exchange program with Mt. Blue High School in their sister city of Farmington because of scheduling problems.
St. Laurent "somehow" found Quinn, she said.
She described Polyvalente Montignac as a combined technical and academic school. "It's a big high school, very much like ours. People were a lot like us. We were a good match."
The students would stay with families in the area in March; in May, the Lac-Megantic students would visit the Oxford Hills area, often requesting a visit to the State House to meet former Gov. Angus King.
“We'd do different things, but we would always go to Boston," Quinn said. "We did this for about five years."
Ties to Lac-Megantic were developed by a number of organizations and institutions in Oxford and Franklin counties and the Lewiston-Auburn area decades ago because the small town is only two or three hours from this area.
Many of the towns near the Canadian border established Christmas tree exchanges and sometimes exchanged Christmas gifts with the children of Lac-Megantic.
Members of the Rumford Senior Citizens Club and the Holy Cross Senior Club in Lewiston routinely visited the town in the 1980s for early-spring “sugar parties.”
Snowmobilers ride trails that link Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. Many drive to the French-speaking village of Lac-Megantic.
In the 1960s, Lewiston Bantam hockey players, ages 14 and younger, went to Lac-Megantic to play at the Bonin Arena. They noted the "speed and finesse" of the Canadian players and were impressed with the system of the player-production at the Lac-Megantic arena, according to the Lewiston Daily Sun, which covered one event in January 1965.
One of the closest ties with their American neighbors was to the town of Farmington. A sister-city relationship was established in 1991. Last week, Farmington and other fire departments in Franklin and Oxford counties sent firefighters to Lac-Megantic to help their neighbors.
“Even though we are divided by a line on the map, we are all fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and so forth and understand the fear and sorrow (their) great city is feeling now,” said Ryan Morgan, chairman of the Farmington Board of Selectmen.