Rebecca Melnyk
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Stories in the ashes: covering disaster in Lac-Mégantic

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After a train exploded in a tiny Quebec town, some reporters stuck around and showed us the power of narrative journalism.


Illustration by Sebastien Thibault

By Rebecca Melnyk 

Inside his west-end Toronto apartment, Justin Giovannetti was cocooned in blankets, sick in bed with a bad cold on his day off. His cellphone rang. Dennis Choquette, his editor at The Globe and Mail, wanted him in the office. Giovannetti rolled off his mattress, slipped into his least flattering clothes and schlepped in to work. Soon enough, he found out a train had derailed overnight in a Quebec town called Lac-Mégantic. He attempted to build stories from calls to the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, and emails from the Globe’s chief Quebec correspondent, Sophie Cousineau, who was already on the scene. Finally, on that humid evening of July 6, 2013, Choquette told the summer intern to book a flight.

Around eight o’clock the next morning, the 26-year-old rented an SUV in Montreal and drove about three hours across the countryside until he saw smoke on the horizon. He pulled into town, where small clusters of locals huddled along Rue Laval—the main road leading straight to a metal barricade, and beyond that, a sea of black ash from the explosions that had set the downtown ablaze. Adrenaline set in and his cold disappeared as he viewed the disaster scene. He thought he’d be there for a few days, but he finally departed two months later. When he left on September 2, he knew many in the community.

This wasn’t just a parachute-in, sweep-up-the-facts reporting job, although many journalists rushed there to do just that. This was a story that needed to transport readers—farther than fleeting Twitter fixes can do—to a town that could have been just about any small town across the country.

Like the maple tree at the edge of the disaster zone—one side singed and dead, the other, verdant and alive—our relationship with trains now has stark sides. They bring energy, but they also carry hazardous materials and threaten our way of life.

One train was all it took to set a tragic narrative in motion. Some reporters raced to Lac-Mégantic to gather hard facts and keep us updated, but left gaps in the process. Others dug deeper and stayed longer to bring us to the heart of the tragedy. The reporters who stayed to tell stories showed how narrative journalism helps answer questions that others leave smouldering in the ashes.

Just after midnight on July 6, about 60 people are up late at Musi-Café on Rue Frontenac. They’re enjoying one of the first warm nights of summer after days of cold rain. Some are celebrating birthdays. Some are dancing to the songs of local musicians. Others are smoking on the terrace, about 20 metres from the tracks that loop through town. Around 12:58 a.m., less than 13 kilometres away, a driverless, 73-car train carrying crude oil from a Bakken oil field in North Dakota begins rolling toward them.

The sky flashes bright orange around 1:15 a.m. as the train derails and tanks burst into massive fireballs. Flames swallow the Musi-Café, illuminating the Appalachian Mountains across the lake. Residents stand silently on the streets while firemen wander helplessly around the edge of the inferno. Soon, police bang on doors and evacuate the area.

One confirmed dead. Many missing. Two thousand evacuated. Thirty buildings destroyed. That’s all reporters can confirm by the following morning as they wander around with recorders and notepads. Riley Sparks, an intern at Montreal’s The Gazette and one of the first reporters to arrive, has no idea what to write when he gets there in the early afternoon. Later, he steps out of his car and crouches down next to a couple sitting on their back porch, watching their town burn.

When Giovannetti arrives on Sunday afternoon, he, too, has no clue where to start. There are no reliable estimates of a death count; numbers keep fluctuating, and people who are missing may be on hunting or fishing trips. Giovannetti joins four other Globe reporters in the evening—Cousineau had spent the night in her car in front of a McDonald’s, one of the only places with Wi-Fi and power outlets. They pitch a tent outside the town since all the B&Bs are swarmed with journalists. In the thick heat of summer, with no running water for showering, the reporters have no time to think between getting to bed after midnight and attending 6 a.m. press briefings.

During those first updates, Giovannetti is among about 30 reporters, a number that doubles by the afternoon of Monday, July 8, when CNN, BBC and other international outlets show up. Four days ago he was writing about the battle over butter tarts in rural Ontario. Now he’s in his home province, which he left in May for the Globeinternship, scribbling notes on the worst train disaster in modern Canadian history. He follows a Facebook discussion group and learns some residents are angry at insensitive journalists failing to respect their privacy. But on July 10, Edward Burkhardt, CEO and chairman of the Chicago-based Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which operated the train that derailed, arrives in town, and Giovannetti sees the negative sentiment toward reporters turn for the better.

The press centre is one block south of École Sacré-Coeur, an elementary school serving as a temporary police station. When Burkhardt, a man in his 70s with a slight hunch, walks out the school’s glass doors, a reporter spots him. A horde of journalists soon follows. Giovannetti, who is across town when he gets a call from a Globecolleague, races up the street in his SUV. Seeing no parking spots, he leaves it in the middle of Rue Champlain, which is already jammed with abandoned vehicles. He runs toward Burkhardt, who’s now being grilled in a full-on scrum. Photographers climb trees to snap pictures. “You’re a rat!” one resident yells through the crowd. After about 30 minutes, cops lead Burkhardt into the back of a police car and drive away.

Back in Toronto, Choquette and others in the newsroom begin contemplating various story ideas, such as a magazine-like piece about life inside Musi-Café before the fire consumed the building. “We all wanted to hear the band playing that night,” Choquette says. That means speaking with witnesses who were at the bar, finding out how paths intersected that evening—and writing a story that captures the emotional toll of the train wreck. Good narrative arises out of a “profound need to make sense of the chaos,” he says. “It’s one of the best tools we have as journalists.” And reporters who value the tools of literary journalism often take on disasters because they’re great stories, full of danger, suspense, suffering and blame.

But making narrative sense out of chaos hasn’t always been a top priority in Canadian disaster coverage. There was a time when reporters distanced readers from tragedy with hard facts rather than offering meaning and context. The St-Hilaire train crash in 1864 killed close to 100 immigrants and resulted in fact-heavy coverage stacked into narrow columns. Stories sent by telegraph centred on identifying the dead and relaying the proceedings of the inquest that followed the disaster.

During the 1917 Halifax Explosion, in which a French cargo ship blew up and killed an estimated 2,000 people, various Canadian Press reports revealed stories about survivors without describing their emotional ordeal or giving a sense of who they were. One such article, “Late notes from a great disaster,” summed up assorted facts about the event—the destruction of a textile mill, missing family members and so on—but related no specific details to give readers any sense of the scene, the victims or their families.

Flickers of narrative began to appear during the third Springhill mining disaster in November 1958. CP’s “Wives and children waited at pithead” described the seconds before the rescue of trapped miners, turning eyewitnesses into three-dimensional characters. Bruce West, a Globe reporter who covered the disaster, returned to Springhill to write about what the paper called “a hard-luck town that refuses to die” for the now-defunct Globe Magazine. The feature focused on the emotional and economic implications of the disaster for the town’s residents.

Writing about the aftermath of a tragedy has purpose. Joe Scanlon, director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University, worked the Toronto Daily Star rewrite desk on the November day the last miners were rescued. The paper had pulled reporters from the scene days earlier, so Scanlon wrote the front-page report from Toronto. He says writing features about a disaster after the initial event is a way of keeping the story alive when there’s nothing new to write about.

This summer, the Globe spent thousands of dollars—on car rentals, phone bills and lodging—to keep Giovannetti in Lac-Mégantic building relationships and fine-tuning the chronology of events through survivors’ stories. Sticking around is essential to narrative, according to New Yorker editor David Remnick, who said in 2011, “The good stuff comes when you come back, and back, and back and back.” When the news caravan moves on, narrative writers can take the time to write meaningful stories.

Giovannetti is still in Lac-Mégantic on August 1. Other journalists return to their offices after the tragedy becomes more about the condition of railways, how to transport oil safely and the environmental consequences of the explosion. Yet what becomes increasingly clear after the disaster is how significant Musi-Café was to the town—a gathering space for young and old, and the place where most of those killed spent their final moments. Giovannetti not only speaks the language, but also understands the culture; that’s why he got the assignment. At the edge of a Maxi grocery store parking lot near a rundown suburban strip mall, he talks with workers as they set up a makeshift Musi-Café. Hammers nail white tents into the ground as locals carry in palm trees similar to the ones that stood on the bar’s patio. More than 1,000 people fill the grassy hills surrounding a large stage. Folk musician Fred Pellerin begins to play his guitar and rain falls hard as Giovannetti runs back and forth to his car, uploading photos and filing a story. He types on his computer: “For the bar’s staff, the trees were a reminder of the bar’s rebirth. . . . on an evening when dark clouds loomed.” He believes these narrative elements are important because few people he writes for have been to Lac-Mégantic.

Many reporters have branched out from the early, prosaic coverage of man-made disasters to write pieces that dig deep into the story, create room for emotion and stretch the boundaries of detached voice. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the human toll and the resulting economic, political and environmental concerns spurred news outlets such as USA Today and The New York Times to reconstruct the event through profiles of different survivors who had escaped the World Trade Center.

A good deal of research has examined narrative coverage of 9/11, including Carolyn Kitch’s study, “Mourning in America: ritual, redemption, and recovery in news narrative after September 11.” She points out that newsmagazines replaced fear with patriotic pride, showing how journalists make sense of senseless news by placing these events in a “grand narrative” of resilience. Narrative doesn’t just take us places—it’s also powerful enough to change the way people perceive their country in the wake of violence and destruction. By transporting readers to the scene of 9/11, journalists let them become witnesses as well—personally involved in the event and, perhaps, more willing to care about the resulting circumstances.

On April 25, 2013, The Boston Globe published Eric Moskowitz’s “Carjack victim recounts his harrowing night,” a story about a man terrorized by the Boston bombing suspects. The reporter spent time in the victim’s home, getting to know him and developing trust, which helped his story unfold like an action film or, as Moskowitz says, like a “Tarantino movie.” During a live online chat hosted by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, he wrote that narrative helped him avoid trying to “march readers toward a particular understanding.” But in the end, it let readers understand more. A resident near the Watertown shooting site emailed him to say the tick-tock piece “helped fill in gaps that had been gnawing at him.”

Rémi Tremblay, a reporter at Lac-Mégantic’s L’Écho de Frontenac for 32 years, hears explosions less than 500 metres away after his son wakes him abruptly. Without a computer and unable to get to his office, Tremblay drives down to Rue Laval where other residents are standing. “I was a witness more than a journalist,” he says. But the paper hadn’t missed a week of publication since 1929, so he begins to write a story in his head—one he will later say came from his heart and gut.

Later, his editor brings him a laptop and he sits down at the corner of a table in an emergency station kitchenette. His fingers pound the keyboard. “Everyone has a horror story to tell,” he types. “Images that will not fade.” What follows is an emotional narrative called “La ville des âmes en peine,” or “The town of suffering souls,” praised by readers for capturing the essence of how residents felt. The following Thursday, the newspaper adds 2,000 copies to its usual print run of 9,000.

A dentist’s nameplate still hangs on the door of L’Écho de Frontenac’s makeshift office. Until he can return to his old office on a leafy street beside the red zone, Tremblay works at a long, adjustable table surrounded by mismatched office chairs. He says he lost all objectivity that night. The result was an award from the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec for local and regional news coverage. The jury said the “poignant account” put readers at “the heart of the tragedy.”

The “heart” of narrative forges what Josh Greenberg, associate director of Carleton’s journalism and communications school, calls an emotional connection between storytellers and readers. Policy stories, he believes, may fail to resonate on their own. But with the context of narrative journalism, readers may be more engaged. With issues of national importance—in this case, railway safety and the transportation of hazardous materials—there’s good reason for the public to be emotionally attached. “Readers need to be reminded of why these stories are important,” he says. “But in order for them to re-experience an event, they need to be drawn back in, not just through digging up facts and probing questions, but also by the way the material is organized.”

Mark Kramer, founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University, says non-narrative reporting is an impersonal language where the standard journalistic voice is most often not human; narrative voice is “more perfect, more delineated, a bigger voice that causes emotions.” It humanizes a story worth worrying about.

It’s also a voice that, according to Greenberg, can differentiate one paper’s coverage from another’s. When trains began to roll back into Lac-Mégantic in December, theNational Post focused on residents’ “psychological distress” over the reappearance, while the Globe emphasized the town’s economic dependence on the railway, speaking with residents who’d lost friends but were pleased for the train’s return.

The cycle of man-made disaster coverage—human loss, cause, rebirth—usually ends with the public choosing to stop expending brainpower on the tragedy. A feature on the last moments of the lives of survivors, like the one Giovannetti would write, may not be breaking news, but its intent is to draw readers back to the story they’ve wandered away from or, as Kramer says, to use “emotion for public purpose.” At the Poynter Institute, senior scholar Roy Peter Clark says narrative carries readers to another time and place. “It makes you more human,” he says. There’s more empathy to understand a richer variety of people in turmoil when you feel like you’re there with them.

Once a carrier of forest products, now a transporter of dangerous goods, the train is a character in a large but often ignored Canadian story. During the first week of coverage, Globe reporter John Allemang makes policy more engaging when he walks along a bike path 20 metres from the tracks. At one point, he transports readers to Nantes, where the runaway train originated. “You leave Lac-Mégantic,” he writes, “pass a highway roundabout where Guy Lepage believes the train line could be diverted from the town centre, and soon come across graffiti-covered freight cars that are at once a misplaced urban art project and a reminder of the diminished status of rail.”

Then there’s Les Perreaux, a Montreal correspondent for the Globe, who partly walks and partly drives along the MM&A tracks, tracing the destruction of the historic railway. “Journey to the end of the MM&A Railway line” takes readers back in time to what could have led up to the disaster. He points out that at Cowansville, Quebec, “the wooden support beams on the bridge are so rotten, saplings have sprouted from them” and how in Greenville, Maine, in October 1998, a train carrying butane ran “past the hospital and the school” and “rolled down an embankment into the town cemetery, landing on graves.” All man-made disasters have villains, but seeing the framework of a deteriorating railway suggests the possibility of more than one scapegoat.

Tom Harding, the train’s driver, appeared to fill that role after Burkhardt—who supported one-man crews—publicly accused him of improperly setting the hand brakes. And so, in the dense heat of mid-August, Star reporter Wendy Gillis drives to the dusty town of Farnham, Quebec—Harding’s hometown—to find out if he’s a true villain. She walks through his neighbourhood, past his stone bungalow, hoping to speak with him. He’s with his teenage son, strapping two yellow kayaks to his black pickup truck. She wasn’t sure she’d see him; he had supposedly gone into hiding. Her heart was racing—he’s said no to other reporters. She asks a question, but he shakes his head “no” and goes inside. Instead, Gillis knocks on the door of a neighbour who willingly spends a long time discussing Harding’s good character. She stays up most of the next night at a bar, chatting with a couple of local guys over a few beers. “Railway crossing signs dot Farnham’s wide streets, the thud-thud of tracks unavoidable on a drive around town,” she writes in a September 7 article that reflects her time spent in the town. “Sometimes there are no easy villains.”

If Harding is no easy villain, Gillis discovers, then “the train is no simple villain, either.” Instead of the usual report on Harding’s involvement in the train crash, she reveals how those who are blamed are three-dimensional. Clark says the “why” of a story is often a tricky element. “We often fall into the logical fallacy of the single cause,” he says. “In real life, people’s motives are more opaque.” If Harding grew up with the trains and learned to trust them—just as the people of Lac-Mégantic did—juggling odd jobs until he was old enough to work for Canadian Pacific Railway, perhaps he, too, was a victim.

Ten kilometres outside Lac-Mégantic, at around 6 p.m. on October 4, it’s the kind of fall evening when stars begin to seem brighter, the sky seems darker and summer feels like ages ago. Two hours before actors of La troupe des deux masques de Beauce perform the comedy Tuxedo Palace in an old steepled church on a grassy hill in Marston, Sue Montgomery, a straight-talking, curly-haired reporter for the Gazette, pulls out a used pad of paper. She hugs Karine Blanchette, an actress and former waitress at Musi-Café who is about to perform the same play she was supposed to on the night the fire killed many of her friends. The two sit down in blue-cushioned seats in the front row while the stage manager dashes up and down the aisle. “Macarena” blasts over the stereo in the empty auditorium that will soon fill up with locals who all seem to know each other. Before walking backstage, Blanchette updates Montgomery on how the town is feeling: angry, but gaining some semblance of hope.

Montgomery was on her way to her cottage the morning she heard about the disaster. She didn’t arrive at the scene until late July, long after most journalists had left. But that’s the way she likes it—it’s better to come in when the crowds fall off, when people have had time to let things sink in. “You’re not competing with a bunch of other journalists. There’s not the rush of the daily news, the updating of what’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on,” she says, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Being able to take her time and sit down with people rather than shoving a microphone in their faces during a disaster, Montgomery becomes part therapist, able to listen and understand what they went through.

Later that evening, she files a story about plans to rebuild the town: “The flaming red and orange leaves on nearby hills begin to fall and people stock their woodsheds for what will surely be an emotionally difficult winter.” Montgomery believes residents appreciate this patience.

During the first few days of the disaster, people were in shock, unable to fully grasp the consequences, but reporters probed for leads amid the chaos, biting at the same sources. While news reporting is essential—go in, get the necessary information, file stories by deadline—scrambling for hard facts doesn’t reflect Montgomery’s patience. Though also based on facts, of course, narrative requires context that takes time to build. In the rush to inform, some reporters angered the community by leaving gaps in the story.

Or worse. On July 10, Le Journal de Montréal, Quebec’s most read newspaper, published a list of missing people—some of whom were alive and accounted for. The newspaper depended on Facebook connections, even running photographs from the site next to some names. “We were stuck with the good and the bad of journalism,” says André Laflamme, a volunteer firefighter and paramedic, who saw a picture of his nephew in Le Journal and called his family to make sure the news wasn’t true.

France Dumont, founder of the Facebook group Lac-Mégantic: Support aux gens, says everything was a rush during the first week. Some reporters didn’t double-check information after interviews. One reporter claimed that it’s not customary to recheck pieces before publishing. Journalists asked to go on balconies and into living rooms of people with views over the barricades. Some residents felt invaded and became wary.

Gazette city reporter Christopher Curtis worried about striking the right balance. “I’d leave town at night and feel really shitty about not being able to be there and tell these stories about people who are so generous and brave,” he says. “Then, on your way back, you’d feel bad you were going in to exploit their tragedy.”

Although Curtis saw the disaster as valuable public information, his concerns were valid. “It was an absolute circus,” says Jeannette Lachance, a resident who knew half the people who died. Anytime she left the house she felt that reporters and outsiders would not see her; they would just see the fire. She recognized inaccurate stories, specifically in French papers.

Lachance’s niece, Katy Cloutier, a former sports journalist for Radio-Canada Montréal, moved back to Lac-Mégantic, her hometown, to write about the tragedy. She pulls up to Salon Noël, near the construction zone, in a lime-green car with two bumper stickers that read, “Support Lac-Mégantic.” She has the date July 6, 2013, tattooed in black ink on her left foot. She thinks back to the first week of coverage, when reporters packed the sidewalk she’s now standing on, itching to interview a female customer getting her hair done inside the salon. The woman, whose son owns a funeral home in town and lost half of his office space to the fire, didn’t want to talk. A neighbour distracted reporters so she could duck away.

Down the street from the salon, at the edge of the disaster zone, a brown cat scurries under the barricade along a familiar path, not far from the sugar maple singed by the fire. The same fire continued to flash on television screens from news outlets like TVA. Dumont says it caused trauma among residents who watched repeated images of the disaster. Carleton’s Josh Greenberg says that’s one of the risks of going back to write in-depth narrative stories: people must relive these events.

Still, many of the town’s residents were grateful for journalists. Gerard Begin, who’s lived in Lac-Mégantic for almost 70 years, looks over his shoulder at the construction site. “That’s my life,” he says, gazing over flattened ground where homes and businesses once stood.

If narrative journalism transports us to the scene to stand next to people who trusted the railway, who walked downtown often enough to call it their life—people who could have been us—then being there could quite possibly help us care a little more, and caring might lead to a disaster like this never happening again.

Back in Toronto, Giovannetti heads to the office after a short lunch break. He’s meeting his editor, Choquette, at 4 p.m. to discuss the feature he’s been writing since July. He’s also preparing to return to Lac-Mégantic for follow-up interviews. He’ll be back on the road, away from his desk—one reason he became a journalist.

The road he’s been on for four months led to a town moving through cycles of shock and grief. He went to witness the struggle and write that story. “We invested so much time with Justin in Lac-Mégantic and we had so much material that it cried out for something bigger,” says Choquette, who doesn’t view the piece as a conventional Saturday feature, but rather a story with narrative elements, such as suspense, to draw readers in, followed by three policy reports.

On Saturday, November 30, a photograph of a bright orange explosion hovering over the silhouette of a town spreads across the front page of the Globe with the headline “Last call.” Almost 8,000 words divided into 10 character-driven sections, plus an epilogue. The stories are a series of brushstrokes.

Near the barricade in Lac-Mégantic, on an October afternoon, there’s no noise except the dampened motor of an excavator and the hinges of a porch door. Looking east through the fence holes to where the sugar maple still stands, you can see amber leaves sway over the backyard of a home that the fire never touched. On the other side of the tree, curled black leaves cling to burnt branches—dozens, right there above the construction site. The tree stands on the forbidden side of the barricade, where workers in hard hats now decontaminate the earth.

The fire is a memory now—the fire that consumed 47 lives, the fire that spared part of this tree. But just as the lush leaves show us stories of good fortune, the dead leaves show our vulnerability. They warn of trains that come and go from town to town, they make us question our certainty. The dead leaves show us stories we must tell.

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