Maine Firefighters at Lac-Mégantic

I was going to use this post to promote the new Liss MacCrimmon novel and hold another giveaway, but I find there’s something more important I want to say here today. I’ll get back to humorous mysteries, and giveaways, next time around.

At four in the morning on Saturday, July 6th, volunteer firefighters in Franklin County, Maine were called out to fight a fire. In itself, that’s nothing unusual, but this time the call came from the border crossing at Coburn Gore and relayed an urgent request from a tiny town twenty miles outside of Maine on the Canadian side of the border. Lac-Mégantic, power and phone lines wiped out by the explosions that leveled six blocks of the town, had no hydrant system to pump water out of the nearby lake and no Class A foam with which to fight the kind of inferno that resulted from the derailment of tank cars full of crude oil. Lac-Mégantic, Quebec desperately needed assistance. Rural Franklin County towns were the closest source for that help.

At five in the morning, Farmington firefighters were on the road.They were waved across the border and reached the scene, eighty-three miles from their home base, at six-thirty. Firefighters from the tiny town of Eustus weren’t far behind, along with crews and trucks from Chesterville, New Vineyard, Strong, Phillips, and Rangeley. They were greeted by a hellish scene of leveled buildings, blazing tank cars, and roads that had melted from the heat.

Despite the fact that operations at the command post were conducted in French, the first and sometimes only language spoken in this part of Quebec, the volunteers from Maine played a vital role in fighting the fire. Maine firefighters are well trained in extracting water from lakes. For some twenty-one hours straight, crews pumped water from the lake 3000 feet away, down Main Street to other trucks. The Rangeley crew also used its truck to cool rail cars that had not yet exploded, although some of them were already on fire. In all, thirty Maine firefighters fought to contain the fire. They stayed as long as they were needed. While crews from Farmington, Phillips, Strong, New Vineyard and Chesterville headed home at 11:30 that Saturday night, Eustus and Rangeley volunteer firefighters remained until Sunday afternoon.

Lac-Mégantic is still assessing its losses. The death toll is expected to be around fifty. An investigation into the cause of the runaway train and derailment is ongoing. But there was celebration when the fire was finally extinguished. Fire Chief Timothy Pellerin of Rangeley tells of how Lac-Mégantic firemen and other residents came up to the Rangleley fire truck and asked to have their picture taken with the American flag attached to the safety bar, expressing their gratitude to the volunteers from Maine.

I think that’s what moves me the most. Small Maine fire departments are almost universally volunteer fire departments. They are well trained, but they are not the professional force you’d find in Boston or New York. It is that fact that prompted Maine Senator Angus King to pay tribute to them on the floor of the Senate a little over a week after the fire, calling the volunteer firemen from Maine “true American heroes who embody the best this country has to offer. They were called into action by their unwavering sense of civic duty and throughout the night they overcame tremendous odds, including a language barrier and a lack of resources . . . the perseverance, skill, and courage of those firefighters from Maine, and their brave Canadian counterparts, could not prevent this tragedy, but at least contained and controlled it . . . this is the best of America.”

Although the firefighters were waved across the border during the emergency, sending additional aid to Canada now is a little more complicated. The best way is through the Canadian Red Cross at where there is a special fund set up for the relief of Lac-Mégantic. Some 2000 of the 6000 residents were evacuated during the crisis and, two weeks later, hundreds are still displaced.


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9 Responses to Maine Firefighters at Lac-Mégantic

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Volunteer fire departments, the mainstay of many communities not served by paid departments, seldom receive the recognition they truly deserve . . . the best of America indeed.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Kaitlyn. Although we in Maine have been hearing daily about the tragedy at Lac-Megantic, it took several days for national news to pick up the story, and it was dropped several days after that. It’s a story with many ramifications … and some heroes. Your post reminds us of those Mainers who respond when called.

  3. How is it possible to feel so bad, and yet so good, after reading a story like this?

    Very well done, Kaitlyn. Thank you.

  4. Barbara Ross says:

    I. too, have been following this story and. like Lea, have been frustrated by how little reporting there has been in the US press. These are our neighbors and allies for goodness sake! And, as Lea says, there are many important ramifications to this story.

    Thank you, Kaitlyn for helping spread this important part of the story.

  5. Thank you for an informative and moving post, Kaitlyn.I’d not heard anything on the national news about the aid provided by the Maine firefighters. Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t picked it up. Perhaps, I have indeed missed it. Don’t see the evening news every night. I hope it was there. It’s a story that deserved coverage.

  6. Lil Gluckstern says:

    The sad thing is that the media here in the US doesn’t dwell too long on any bit of news-it’s always on to the next scandal, the next politicianwho did something reprehensible. Do they ever do something good. I found this post painful and warming as well. People do respond to need; the media certainly doesn’t acknowledge that enough. I follow Louise Penny on FB and read a great deal about the suffering. I’m beginning to wish I could endure the Maine winters; lots of lovely people as well as wonderful landscapes. Thank you for this post.

  7. Thank you everyone for your comments. You’re echoing my feelings about news coverage in the US. True, there was a plane crash in California the same day, but the loss of life there was much less than in Lac-Magantic. The town relies on tourism, which is pretty much shot now. Among the buildings that disintegrated was the town library. But when a delegation from Farmington visited last week (Farmington and Lac-Megantic are “sister cities”) they found people in Lac-Magantic remarkably optimistic about the future. There are some good articles in our local online newspaper, the Daily Bulldog, and of course the Canadian online news outlets have done a good job of covering the story.

  8. Joe Collins says:

    In my state, Iowa, most of the state is covered by volunteer fire departments. I’ve been a proud member of my local volunteer FD for 14+ years. I know that I can’t clean up the entire world but I know that I’ve helped make my own little corner of it a bit better for some in my community and the surrounding areas.

    Please consider, if you are able, to join your local volunteer FD. Due to time constraints, training commitments, and the increasing number of calls, volunteer departments all over the country are in need of people to help in whatever capacity they can. (They may not need someone to crawl into a burning building but there are a lot of other jobs that need to be filled. In many cases, it isn’t being a big, strong hose hauler but being able to hold the hand of the sick, dying, in pain and frightened person who is having the worst, most horrible day of their life.)

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