Saturday, 20 July 2013

Lac-Mégantic, Que

On July 8, 2013 I drove 875km from my home to join Globe and Mail staffer Moe Doiron and a small team of reporters in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Until Saturday I had not heard of this picturesque tourist destination on the edge of Quebec's Eastern Townships. But now, for me, and for countless others, this otherwise quiet town of about 6000 residents, will forever have a permanent place in our psyche.

In the early hours of Saturday morning a run-away train hauling 72 tankers filled with light crude brought hell-on-earth to the town's historic downtown. Media from across the country flooded to the small town to cover this story. The track configuration will certainly be a consideration in the investigation, as are the events that lead the rolling time-bomb to begin rolling down the steady grade from where it was parked in Nantes, about 20km away. The momentum alone of this mass of steel derailing in an urban centre is frightening enough, but the explosions, inferno, and a flowing river of fire toward the lake meant that people nearby never stood a chance. Officials estimate that as many as 50 people may have lost their lives, but the recovery process will be painstaking and lengthy. Many more residents were displaced for several days as the fire was brought under control, and the "crime scene" secured. Most were able to return to their homes by the end of the week, but many, still in temporary housing, will likely not return to their homes, if they are still standing, for weeks, or months.

A house still stands adjacent to the destruction in downtown Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 11, 2013.(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
For those whose homes are inside the screened steel fencing erected by the authorities it will be some time before they experience the emotional return to home and re-uniting with neighbours that we witnessed on the 11th. For many their homes are tantalizingly close but unreachable; peeking almost mockingly at them over the menacing black fencing.

This lengthy barrier, purported by authorities to be "protecting a crime scene," has screening that denies passers-by a view to the carnage beyond. On the sides where public, and media access, is denied, there is no black screening. But the Lac-Mégantic's residents are curious, as are the media, and now, there are throngs of tourists who have been flocking to the small town to catch a glimpse of their own of this disaster. For the media, who have had limited access to the site, the curious onlookers have themselves become a story.

Someone has elected to decorate the screened fencing in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 13, 2013.(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
What hasn't become a story, and should at some point, is the fact that authorities in Lac-Mégantic have repeatedly done everything they can to inhibit the media, and the public, from witnessing the work being done beyond the fencing under the guise of "protecting the evidence." Photographers especially have been told repeatedly that "it is illegal to photograph a crime scene." Nonsense. Or, "it is illegal to photograph a body." Nonsense. It even became ridiculous to the point that photographers were denied the ability to approach residents to ask to use their balconies to secure a view.

The scope of this disaster is yet to be fully understood and absorbed by everyone who has been touched by it. The pain felt in Lac-Mégantic, and the healing that will take place over many years is certainly what is most important. In its scope and its impact, this disaster is unprecedented in Canada.

A small hand-made cross placed by local Helene Drapers sits at the front of St. Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on on July 13, 2013.(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

What is not unprecedented is the methods used by authorities to stymie the efforts of a free media, in a democratic country, to gather information. Authorities in Lac-Mégantic have chosen to police morality rather than the law. They have taken it upon themselves to decide what images are gathered from the scene, and are attempting to decide for the media what we can or cannot publish in good conscience. This is simply wrong, and outside of their mandate.

Their concerns, that some media will publish something that is hurtful, or insensitive to the community are not without precedent either. But in my experience most media organizations historically err on the side of caution especially when it comes to image use. The instances where an organization consciously or inadvertently publicizes disturbing material are few, and is not the responsibility of the emergency services to control.

At one point, we the media were even asked, by a PR official, not to take images of people working on the site. What a ridiculous request to make.

What is almost as upsetting is the way every media outlet allowed this to continue without any real challenge. I know of only one photographer, perhaps a little motivated by a late arrival and the need to generate some fresh images, who challenged the top PR man, their policy, and their lack of authority to enforce it. Without the support of the mass of media present, which should have existed, this attempt was doomed to fail, as it did.

Police and forensic team members take a break in the shade of a home inside the red zone in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 14, 2013.(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
It has not been lost on the media that much of the work being done inside the perimeter borders on the heroic. Many workers have fallen ill on the site. Long hours and exhaustion in the extreme heat have been a constant concern. Over time the horrible job many workers must endure is sure to take an emotional toll. But this is indeed part of the story, and should be told, in words, and in images. Asking residents to keep us off of their roofs, or suggesting that their insurance wouldn't cover an injury to a media person is, again, untrue, and beyond the mandate of authorities.

In a community that is coming together for strength, two women smile and clasp arms following a moment of silence at noon in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 13, 2013.(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Lac-Mégantic has felt this tragedy at its core. Many of us have witnessed the community coming together and showing great strength, and support. Compassionate acts of condolence have filled the memorial inside Sainte Agnes Church from near and far. I know that I have been touched by the kindness of the people I met on this assignment, and the strength this community showed despite such a great loss.


For more images from Lac-Mégantic, go to my personal website or The Globe and Mail.