A Michigan journalist finds echoes of Detroit in a shattered Canadian town

Lac-Mégantic almost eight months after a train derailed and exploded in the middle of the town.

Lac-Mégantic almost eight months after a train derailed and exploded in the middle of the town.

Tamar Charney / Michigan Radio

When I realized I was vacationing less than an hour from Lac-Mégantic in Quebec last week, I grabbed my passport and went. I somehow needed to see for myself what happened there.

Lac-Mégantic is a small tourist town on Lake Mégantic near a beautiful wilderness area. On July 6 last year, at about 1 am, a runaway train carrying crude oil barreled into town, derailed, burst into flames, sent fireballs into the air and killed more than 42 people. It killed people asleep in their homes and those having a night out at the Musi-Cafe. And it destroyed half of the historic business district — including the library. Burning crude oil spilled onto the ground, into sewers and even into basements.

The Toronto Star published this interactive graphic that shows what was destroyed and tells the story of the people who died.

Today, there are still barricades on the main road into what was the downtown. It's a three-kilometer detour to get to the remaining part. Checkpoints keep traffic and visitors out of what was once the southern half of the main part of town.

Dirt is mounded as workers clean up piles of contaminated soil along the train track where homes and businesses once stood. The ones that weren’t fully destroyed have boarded-up windows. The cleanup is expected to take years. In the meantime, Lac-Mégantic has controversial plans to build a new business district in another location.

Ashes to hope

Somehow, the whole scene looked a bit too familiar — like blocks of Detroit had been plopped down in the middle of a lakeside resort town in Canada.

Detroit wasn’t hit by a train and nothing happened overnight there. Maybe in some stretch of a metaphorical sense, you could think of the forces of globalism, neglect and societal change that starved Detroit as a slow-moving freight train.

Regardless, both Detroit and Lac-Mégantic are left to figure out how to move forward with a shattered economic base and communities physically and emotionally torn apart. Detroit, like Lac-Mégantic, has plans for the future that may or may not come to pass.

And both places have a long road ahead.

A conversation in Lac-Mégantic

I sat down at Passion Chocolate — a small cafe on the edge of the ruined part of town. A man approached my table and addressed me in English. He had seen my Michigan license plate. He told me he’s from Windsor, right across the river from Detroit, and that he has family in Michigan.

He asked if I know what happened in Lac-Mégantic? I nodded yes. And then he apologized for the state of the town.

“It is usually a beautiful place,” he said. To which I could only manage to mutter, “I’m sorry for what happened here.”

“Me, too,” he said, and then he encouraged me to come back again when things are better.

I’ve been thinking about that exchange for days and wondering if anyone in Michigan would say something similar about Detroit? Would we ever tell a visitor to come back when our largest city is once again beautiful?

Do we even truly believe that day will come?

This story was originally posted at Michigan Public Radio.