Tragic Quebec train disaster echoes 1917 Halifax explosion

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Canada has seen few worse train accidents than the July 6 derailment of a runaway train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. After derailing, the crude cars exploded at about 1:15 a.m., instantly wiping out up to 30 buildings and killing 50 people. Fires from the explosion raged for over a day after the accident. Accounts of what happened are still sketchy, with questions about whether enough manual safety brakes were properly set, given that the train’s pneumatic brakes were disconnected by firefighters turning off the engine after a fire. The failure of the handbrakes led to a seven-mile downhill race by the unmanned train before the explosion.

The tragedy evokes memories of the titanic Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917, when a drifting French cargo ship filled with war munitions leveled the waterfront Richmond district of Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing an estimated 2,000 people and injuring 9,000 more. Like the Lac-Megantic derailment, the S.S. Mont-Blanc was carrying highly volatile materials. Also, like last week’s train accident, the ship was unmanned at the time of the accident. The Mont-Blanc had earlier collided with a smaller Norwegian vessel, and her French crew abandoned ship when it caught fire and began drifting towards the Richmond district. No such cowardice is attributed to the Canadian train’s engineer, who was asleep in bed at the time of the accident. Yet both disasters also share a final similarity: the lack of warning to townspeople, who had no idea they were in mortal danger. There is little that could have been done to protect people in Lac-Megantic, given the speed of events, and similarly, the size of the Halifax explosion meant that no effective evacuation could have occured even if begun. In fact, the Halifx Explosion was the largest man-made detonation of munitions until the July 1945 atomic bomb test, with an explosive force estimated at 2.9 kilotons on TNT (the Trinity test had a yield of approximately 20 kilotons of TNT).

For anyone visiting Halifax, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has a fascinating and heartbreaking permanent exhibit on the disaster. It is well worth a visit, as is the whole museum, and is more compelling than the Titanic exhibit also in the museum (as interesting as that is). The story of heroic railroad telegrapher Vince Coleman, who stayed at his post to warn incoming trains, is especially moving. One small fact: The Nova Scotia government continues to send an annual Christmas Tree to the city of Boston in appreciation of the crucial help that Halifax received from the Boston Red Cross and Massachusetts, which immediately sent a relief train filled with supplies and medical workers. 

The tragedy in Lac-Megantic is a sad reminder that truly unforeseen accidents continue to happen in our regulated, safety-conscious, industrial world. We simply assume that things will work the way they are supposed to, and most of us have no direct connection to the technological sinews that make our society run. Yet there are times that nothing can prevent innocent life from being wiped out in a matter of seconds, because of a chain of events beginning miles away with layers of complexity that few could anticipate or understand. We may be safer than our forebears a century ago, but that is cold comfort when disaster strikes.

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