Smoke billows July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. Farmington Fire Rescue photo

FARMINGTON — Seventy-two tanker cars filled with about 2 million gallons of crude oil had barreled down a steep grade at 65 miles an hour with no brakes toward Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Then came what witnesses have described as “hell,” as 63 cars holding about 1.6 million gallons of oil derailed and exploded near the center of town at about 1:15 a.m., killing 47 people and destroying 44 buildings.

Ten years later, the images of the devastation in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, still sit heavy in the minds of Franklin County firefighters, who recall vividly what they saw the morning of July 6, 2013, when they arrived there.

“I will always remember the dawning of July 7 and seeing Sainte-Agnes Church standing untouched by the flames along with the statue of Jesus with his welcoming arms extended through the smoke,” retired Rangeley Fire Rescue Capt. Clyde Chapman said. His department was at the scene for 36 hours.

“After 10 years I look back and realize that for a brief moment in time we played an important part in the lives of so many people. I am proud of all the firefighters that responded.”

He was one of 30 firefighters from seven departments in Franklin County who didn’t know what to expect until they saw black smoke billowing into the air and flames shooting from the rail cars.


“Franklin County dispatcher announced that a railway disaster with major fire was occurring in the very heart of Lac-Mégantic, Canada,” he said. “At first I thought this must be a mistake and that a Canadian town 88 miles away couldn’t possibly need our assistance.

“Like firefighters everywhere, we did what we always do and immediately answer the call for help,” he said. “Along with our Rangeley units, several other Franklin County departments started the long uphill climb toward the Canadian border. When we reached the checkpoint the border guards waived us right through without hesitation. As we got closer we spotted a huge column of oily black smoke and wondered what in the world we would be getting ourselves into.”

They staged their equipment on the main street close to the fire. It was ghostly quiet, he said, because many of the 6,000 residents had fled for their lives.

Tim Hardy, retired Franklin County Emergency Management Agency director, said he got a call about 3:30 a.m. that day from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Peter Farnsworth who said a train had derailed and caught fire.

“He was requesting Class B foam,” Hardy, Farmington’s deputy fire chief, said.

A second call from Lac-Mégantic advised Class A foam, aerial and pumper trucks and manpower were needed, Hardy said.


He contacted dispatchers at the Franklin County Regional Communications Center in Farmington to request alerts be sent to fire departments that could go to Lac-Mégantic.

Seven pumper trucks, two tower trucks and 30 firefighters from departments in Chesterville, Farmington, Eustis, Rangeley, East Dixfield, Phillips and Strong went, while others provided coverage to the county.

“This whole effort was a Franklin County effort,” Hardy said.

Because of the language barrier, the Maine firefighters were assigned to Lac-Mégantic Fire Department Lt. Andre Laflamme who speaks French and English.

He too, has vivid memories that day, thinking he might also die.

He said his wife woke him up and told him a house was on fire. He looked out.


“The town was on fire,” he said.

He and colleagues went to the downtown fire station.

“I thought ‘Hell must look like this.’ There was a wall of fire. Nobody had seen anything like it,” Laflamme said.

Firefighters spray water July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after train cars loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded. Forty-seven people died and the downtown was destroyed. Farmington Fire Rescue photo

“At that time, I thought I was going to die like everyone else was going to die,” he said.

Laflamme said he and other firefighters went to apartments and knocked on doors to help get people out. Paramedics stayed on duty all night but there were no medical calls, he said.

“Everyone was dead,” he said.


Franklin County firefighters and others from 118 other departments in other states and Canada went to work establishing the water supply from Lac-Mégantic Lake and spraying a combination of foam and water to contain the blaze and cool the burning tanker cars.

What still stands out to Hardy’s son, Tim ‘TD’ Hardy, Farmington’s fire rescue chief, was “the sheer devastation of the downtown and area around it.”

It reminded him of the pictures of fires in downtown areas 100 years ago. A section of a house, a chimney and trees burned but still standing, he said.

Much of downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. At least half of the flaming oil was flowing down grade and ending up in Lac-Mégantic, Chapman said.

Fire pumpers were sent to draft water out of the lake because the town’s hydrant system had been knocked out, he said.

Even part of the lake was burning, Laflamme said.


Of those who died, 35 were at Le Musi-Café, a downtown restaurant and bar. A memorial has been built at the site to remember them.

“They still continue to build the downtown but it will never be the same,” Laflamme said.

Among the actions taken since the fire are new safety regulations for trains and a new communications tower installed on Kibby Ridge in Kibby Township in Maine to help with communications.

A report by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board said the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train originated in New Town, North Dakota, bound for Saint John, New Brunswick. It arrived at Nates, Quebec about 10:50 p.m. on July 5, 2013.

“As air leaked from the brake system, the main air reservoirs were slowly depleted, gradually reducing the effectiveness of the locomotive air brakes,” the report said. Just before 1 a.m. on July 6 the air pressure had dropped to a point at which the combination of locomotive air brakes and hand brakes could no longer hold the train, and it began to roll downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, just over seven miles away. As it moved down the steep grade, the train picked up speed, reaching a top speed of 65 mph. It derailed near the center of the town at about 1:15 a.m., the report said.

Two thousand people — a third of the town’s residents — were forced from their homes.

“We did what we could to help our people,” Laflamme said. “We realized without the help of the other fire departments, there probably wouldn’t be a Lac-Mégantic.

“It was the worst tragedy I had ever dealt with by far,” he said of his 46 years as a firefighter and paramedic.

Tanker cars carrying about 2 million gallons of crude oil burn July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Seven fire departments from Franklin County responded to help at the scene where 47 people were killed. Farmington Fire Rescue photo

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