Tragedy Derails Community

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Best Practices

Photo Copyright: Sûreté du Québec

The fact that the Canada-U.S. border separates Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, and Farmington (Franklin County), Maine, USA, made no difference on July 6, 2013, when an unattended 73-car freight train carrying crude oil rolled down a grade and derailed.

Multiple freight cars exploded causing a fire that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, a town of about 6,000 residents, and forced another 2,000 people from their homes. Twenty-six children were orphaned. A record 6 million liters (1.6 million gallons) of crude oil was spilled, burning down the town’s center. Much of the downtown core was destroyed.

“The engine lost braking power while parked on a side rail, and it became a runaway train,” said Stephan Bunker, who lives in Farmington and serves on the (Lac-Mégantic) Farmington, Maine, Board of Selectmen, the equivalent of town council in (Farmington) Lac-Mégantic. “It gathered momentum [power and speed], moved down a grade leading into the city, and spilled over. The heat from the brakes caught the spilled crude oil on fire, and the fire ran through the community. Primarily residents were killed. Early morning [1:15 a.m.]. They didn’t know what was coming.”

Whatever response was available was urgently needed and requested. The distance between Lac-Mégantic and Farmington is 93 miles, about a two-hour drive. In the time it took to notify firefighters, suit up, and drive the distance, five Franklin County towns dispatched firefighters (30 firefighters) and fire engines (eight trucks) and were among the 150 firefighters gathered on scene. The sprawling fire was contained the same day, although clean-up (decontamination) crews were put on hold until police and coroners completed their search for human remains.

Bunker has studied the Lac-Mégantic train disaster going on six years. His interest goes beyond mere emergency services curiosity—which he is known for—or in relation to his public safety profession.

“It punches all the lights for me to learn more,” he said.

Bunker is a 40+ year volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Farmington, a Maine E911 Advisory Council member, and a PDC fire instructor. He is a long-time protocol proponent and was instrumental in making the Medical Priority Dispatch System and Fire Priority Dispatch System standard in Maine’s communication centers.

Farmington and Lac-Mégantic are more than neighbors across a border, Bunker explained. They are twin towns (the U.K. designation, or sister cities as they are called in the U.S.), partnered since 1991 when an agreement was signed to promote cultural and business links.

Bunker continues his research. He wants to talk to people who were involved at the time, meet with representatives regarding regulations generated since then, and visit the cultural “kin” of his hometown. There’s also merit in setting foot where the incident occurred. Learning comes through research and observation.

“So many moving parts, it’s hard to put the puzzle together without seeing [the area] and hearing about what has happened over the past decade,” he said. “This event was a complex mixture involving government oversight (both U.S. and Canadian), tank car design, train routing, rail staffing, track maintenance, braking systems, responder training, response planning, and more.”

He also wants to discuss his observations based on his emergency services experience. “There’s a huge ripple effect, many lessons learned from after-action reports,” Bunker said. “Lac-Mégantic ignited a range of issues beyond what happened that day.”

For example:

  • Was there an emergency response plan in place for rail disasters and was it coordinated among all relevant agencies and officials?
  • Were railroad operations center telephone numbers posted for reference in the call center?
  • Were the firefighters trained to handle railway emergencies?
  • When the initial call was made to Canada’s regional call center from someone observing smoke coming from the engine (prior to the derailment), did the emergency dispatcher gather the appropriate information?
  • Was the Emergency Response Guide (ERG) available and of use?
  • What about the use of the FPDS®? Protocol 70: Train and Rail Collision/Derailment was available in 2013 with Key Questions relevant to the ensuing disaster (freight load contents, injuries, buildings/structures involved, location, and number of cars derailed).
  • Was a translator available to facilitate the exchange of information among responders speaking either English or French?
  • Were cross-border responses by first responders through customs points easily facilitated?
  • Are tabletop and hands-on exercises involving first responders, rail representatives, and emergency communication centers being conducted?

Bunker doesn’t dismiss Lac-Mégantic as an isolated, one-time event. “This could happen in any town where there are train tracks running through. No one could envision the breadth of this disaster. So, how do we prepare? We take lessons and learn from this. If we don’t, it’s just as likely to repeat itself.”


Almost all the 63 derailed tank cars were damaged, and many had large breaches.

The cleanup was a major challenge, Bunker said, and at the time it was estimated it would take months and cost millions of dollars. Millions of gallons/liters of oil spilled on the ground and flooded basements of businesses and houses, destroying much of the downtown core. Oil flowing into the (sewer) street drain system erupted into underground explosions that cracked sewage pipes and blew off manhole covers, with geysers of flames shooting 10 meters (32.9 feet) in the air.1 Oil slicks contaminated the river running through Lac-Mégantic and its tributaries.

“They’re still working on restoring the environmental impact it caused," Bunker said. “So much to be done. Millions of dollars spent in resettlement costs and rebuilding. The railroad company (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway) went bankrupt. There was a lot of finger-pointing [regarding responsibility], and it continues to have a profound impact on the town and its people.”


A final report released by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) declared that the tragedy was not caused by one single person, action, or organization.2

TSB introduced numerous initiatives, including an emergency directive prohibiting trains transporting dangerous goods from operating with single-person crews. Sections of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules were also rewritten, and new tank car standards were proposed.

Agencies in the United States also acted. The National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations aimed at route planning for hazardous materials trains, petroleum products response plans for worst-case spills, and the classification of hazardous materials. The U.S. Department of Transportation also issued an emergency order strengthening train securement rules and a notice of proposed rulemaking targeting, among other items, improved tank car standards.

A decade after the disaster, building a 12.5-kilometer (7.75-mile) bypass to get trains out of downtown Lac-Mégantic “remains a priority.”3 Construction of the bypass has yet to begin.

Bunker marked his calendar for a driving trip to Lac-Mégantic in 2023, the 10-year anniversary of the disaster. He anticipates an observance that builds on those held every year since the 2013 tragedy.

During last year’s observance, as in previous years, the town's flags were flown at half-mast. The municipality's elected officials laid a wreath of flowers at the memorial in the presence of residents. A minute of silence was held in memory of the 47 victims and the bereaved families. Flowers were laid near the granite book in front of the church where the names of the 47 victims are inscribed. At noon, the bells of Sainte-Agnès church rang 47 times in tribute to the victims. During this moment of recollection, traffic was stopped in the vicinity to create calm and serenity. No trains ran on the tracks the entire day.4


1 Derfel A. “Months-long cleanup of crude oil lies ahead.” The Gazette. 2013; July 12. https://www.newspapers.com/image/426726733/?terms=%22Lac%20Megantic%22&match=1 (accessed Jan. 26, 2023).

2 “Lac-Mégantic runaway train and derailment investigation summary.” Transportation Safety Board of Canada. https://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/rail/2013/r13d0054/r13d0054-r-es.html (accessed Jan. 26, 2023).

3 Lalonde M. “Anatomy of a tragedy: Timeline of events at Lac-Mégantic.” The Gazette. 2018; Jan. 20. https://www.newspapers.com/image/422295724/?terms=%22Lac%20Megantic%22&match=1 (accessed Jan. 26, 2023).

4 “Lac-Mégantic marks ninth anniversary of train disaster.” Montreal CTV News. 2022; July 6. https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/lac-megantic-marks-9th-anniversary-of-train-disaster-1.5976356 (accessed Jan. 26, 2023).