Canadian Fire Chief Shares Memories of Rail Disaster

BALTIMORE, MD – A wall of fire and shrill hissing.

That’s what Lac Megantic Fire Chief Denis Lauzon said he faced when he left his house last July to respond to what was dispatched as a residential fire.

He knew instantly it was no house fire. But, what he didn’t know is that rail cars carrying crude oil had derailed, and were burning and exploding. Buildings in his downtown were on fire.

It would later be deemed the greatest environmental disaster in Quebec history.

Lauzon told Firehouse Expo attendees Thursday he immediately called for help from mutual aid communities, including one that had a ladder truck.

“We needed water and manpower…”

The Sherbrooke chief called him to ask if the fire would be out by the time they arrived in about an hour. “I told him: ‘I don’t think so.’

A city manager then sent a photo of the inferno to the Sherbrooke fire station to let them know they’d be there for a while.

“It’s hard to see your downtown buildings on fire,” the chief said, adding that flames stopped at a brick building and one sprinklered.

Early on, he said thinking outside the box became the norm.

“A firefighter came to me and suggested he check the marina in case there were people staying on their boats. I think he knew there may be because he has a boat. And, he found two couples…”

The flaming oil had followed the downhill path to the lake setting it afire. Those flames spread to a garage and a house.

As the explosions and fireballs continued, the chief made repeated requests for help. Among the 80 that answered the alarm were firefighters from Maine and Montreal.

In addition to communications issues, crews determined the hose sizes and threads were incompatible. Some Canadian departments have different patterns to prevent theft.

They also needed foam – lots of it. They ended up using more than 6,000 gallons. 

The chief said tactics also changed at that fire. Instead of rushing in, crews waited for the fire to come to them.

 “There was no way anyone needed to go into that area. There were no rescues to perform."

All but five of the 47 victims’ bodies were eventually recovered.

The chief said he was concerned about his crew’s mental health as many lost friends. Counseling is still available to both personnel and their families.

Lauzon said unfortunately, the tragedy that hit his little town will happen again as the number of rail cars carrying crude oil increases.