FARMINGTON — It will be a day of memories and recognition when about 20 local firefighters return to Lac-Megantic, Quebec on Sunday.

Mayor Colette Roy Laroche invited the Franklin County firefighters who responded to a deadly oil train derailment a year ago to return for a commemorative mass and recognition service.

In the early hours of July 6, 2013, La-Megantic was full of people celebrating Canada Day and a couple of weddings, Tim Hardy, Franklin County Emergency Management Agency director, said.

After midnight, an unattended runaway train of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil began rolling downhill from a rail yard in Nantes about 7 miles west of Lac-Megantic.

The train derailed in the picturesque town of about 6,000 people and caught fire, killing 47 people and destroying 36 buildings, about six city blocks, Rangeley fire Chief Tim Pellerin said.

Rangeley is about 70 miles southeast of Lac-Megantic and responded with a firefighting force to help with the disaster.

Pellerin said he asked the Lac-Megantic liaison how many were injured and was told there was just one, a guy was running out of a bar who fell.

“It happened so fast, you either lived or died. There was nothing in between,” he said. “You either ran away or died.”

At about 3 a.m., Hardy received a call from the Franklin County Dispatch that Farmington’s sister city needed help, manpower and equipment. Eight area departments responded and seven sent apparatus, he said. Others changed their holiday plans to cover the county for those who went.

The magnitude of the event still resonates with those who saw it.

“In 36 years of firefighting, I’ve never seen or been involved in anything like this,” Hardy said. “I hope never to again.”

As firefighters from Farmington neared Lac-Megantic about 6:30 a.m., they could see a lot of smoke, fire Chief Terry Bell said. When they arrived in the town, which is about 96 miles from Farmington, it looked like a war zone.

“It looked like World War II,” he said. “Parts of buildings left, trees burned looked like toothpicks … just the devastation.”

It was the size and magnitude of the disaster that is embedded in Pellerin’s mind. One person said it was like driving into hell — complete devastation and destruction, he said.

It’s the personal losses and issues that impact his thoughts, he said. He also remembers how much it affected the fire department there.

Each Lac-Megantic firefighter knew the people who perished. It affected the morale of their department and caused him to reflect on the brotherhood of firefighting, he said.

“That was the one positive thing I saw … the camaraderie and brotherhood of the fire service,” Pellerin said. “If they call for help, we’ll go. It doesn’t matter what disaster or whether we know the person. They wear helmets, boots and coats just like us. That’s what sets us apart — the bond of understanding. We’ll stand beside our brothers in need and risk our own lives.”

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of talk and finger-pointing but federal regulations are mired, he said.

In April, Pellerin testified before the U.S. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., invited by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to share details from the scene in Lac-Megantic and lessons learned.

The standards to ensure another such disaster won’t happen again have not developed, Pellerin said. There’s a lack of caring from the shipping oil company and little effort to make changes for the better, he said.

While local fire departments train for hazardous materials incidents, both chiefs said they have thought about what if it happened locally. There are no trains in either Farmington or Rangeley, but if a truck carrying 7,000 gallons of gasoline overturned on Farmington’s Main Street, it could be devastating.

“We train and try to train for the worst possible disaster but it’s the intangibles, the things we don’t know or can’t imagine,” Pellerin said.

Each chief also recognizes the effort of the firefighters in Lac-Megantic who tackled those first few, most difficult hours.

“To be home sleeping and the town just lights up. What was the fire chief thinking?” Bell asked. “What do you do first with the town all on fire?”

Bell also thinks about the people. They can’t go downtown without remembering. Every single day, they can’t help but think about it, he said.

“We can’t forget them. They are our neighbors,” Ryan Morgan, Farmington Board of Selectmen chairman, said. “It’s sad it had to happen there but it’s a strong city. They are persevering and moving forward.”

Morgan credits much of that to the Mayor Laroche.

“She’s in charge and facing every obstacle with a smile. She’s a true leader,” he said. 

Morgan and Wilton Selectman Thomas Saviello have gone Lac-Megantic several times to bring financial help.

“Imagine if Farmington, with a population of 7,000, had to evacuate 2,000 people to shelter in the high school. Lac-Megantic is similar with a population of 6,000. Two hundred of those evacuated from their homes couldn’t go home,” Saviello said.

Nearly $70,000 was raised by Mainers to help, he said. The selectmen planned a community fundraising concert in October. Gifts from area towns were solicited.

It will still be three to five years before any major change is seen in Lac-Megantic, Pellerin said.

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