LAC-MÉGANTIC, QUE. - In the grief and confusion that followed last summer's deadly train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Pascal Charest had only one certainty. He knew where his long-time partner and his two young daughters would be put to rest.
Over the last year, the shaggy-haired 37-year-old has pored over the photographs that remain of his young family. He still has the clothes and keepsakes the girls, 9-year-old Bianka and 4-year-old Alyssa, left at his apartment for their weekend visits. Charest and their mother, Talitha Coumi Begnoche, 30, were separated but they were reconciling.
None of the souvenirs and the memories have helped Charest recall the circumstances in which Talitha told him that when her time came she wanted to be buried beside her beloved grandfather in Montreal.
It was the one sure thing amid the what-ifs, the regrets, the frustrations resulting from the train crash that killed 47 people. Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the disaster.
Where Talitha ended up, so would her girls. Bianka and Alyssa had never met their great-grandfather but he loomed large in their imaginations thanks to the stories told to them by their mother.
“They loved him just based on what they heard said about him,” Charest says.
On a cool fall day last year, nearly four months after the disaster, what remained of Charest's family was placed in a burial plot at a sprawling cemetery not far from Montreal's Olympic Stadium. On Oct. 21 Talitha's father, Gaston, had obtained a court order declaring Bianka legally deceased. She was one of seven victims whose remains were never recovered.
A three-word heading — “Tragedie de Lac-Mégantic” — etched for eternity into the gravestone, marked the catastrophe that changed so many lives and continues to leave such a bitter taste one year later.
When the train derailment skipped the tracks a little after 1 a.m. that morning it levelled downtown Lac- Mégantic, it bankrupted the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail company and it sparked an overhaul of the rules around the handling and transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials in both Canada and the United States. It sent politicians, bureaucrats, regulators and private companies scrambling to rewrite and reinforce the standards that failed so utterly when the brakes on an unattended 72-car train gave way and six million litres of oil sped into town at 100 km/h.
Most tragically, the majority of those killed were in the prime of their lives. Some were friends celebrating birthdays at the Musi-Cafe, a popular bar where some 30 people died. One was a singer taking a final break at the end of his Friday night gig. One was the mother of an 18-month-old girl who was killed along with the man she planned to marry. One woman was trying to get pregnant. One man was five days away from his daughter's birth.
In the crowded list of the dead, Bianka Charest Begnoche and her little sister Alyssa stood out for their angelic faces. Bianka had her father's nose; Alyssa was more like mom around the eyes. They lived with Talitha in a tidy apartment block on Lac-Mégantic's main strip, a defenceless one-way-street away from the train tracks.
Where they should have been safest, tucked away in bed shortly after midnight, they were most vulnerable.
Once the thick black smoke had cleared, the threat of explosions had passed and the raging fires had been put down, all that remained was rubble and the twisted, charred metal skins of tanker cars ill-equipped to withstand such a violent event.
“It wasn't simply an accident. It was an accident caused by negligence that took the lives of young people, that killed children, that took away my family,” Charest says. “For me, it was a triple loss all at once.”
He is more than 800 kilometres and one calendar-year away from Lac-Mégantic now, but it remains a vivid loss because it unfolded as if in slow motion right before his eyes.
When it happened, Charest was talking to a friend at a taxi stand wedged in between a dentist's office and kid's clothing store on Rue Frontenac. Three hundred metres away, Talitha, Bianka and Alyssa were sleeping in their apartment. He had seen the girls the previous day, a Friday, at the beach. On Saturday at 6 a.m. he was to have taken Bianka fishing.
Charest heard the rumble of the approaching train but that was a common enough sound to the residents of Lac-Mégantic, where the tracks are the lifeblood of local industry. He only realized what was happening when the hydro lines that stretch along the rear of the buildings on Rue Frontenac went down and the first flash of red light appeared.
“I realized that my children were in danger, so I started to run. I can't tell you how long it took, but in my head it was long,” he says.
When Charest got to the municipal library, three doors down from the apartment, he was stopped by a wall of flames. He circled back and through a public parking lot to try and get to them through the back door of the unit, but it was even worse there.
“Even if the people in the Musi-Cafe had had a chance to get out, they would have had no chance,” Charest says.
Five long, hot, agonizing days after the derailment, Charest was gathering items from his apartment in a section of town that had not suffered damage but was temporarily evacuated due to blowing smoke and possible contamination from the chemicals that burned off.
He looked out his window toward Bianka's school, which had been taken over by police, by crash investigators and other emergency officials. There was a crowd, a commotion. Television cameras moving frantically into position, a flock of journalists ready to pounce. Charest approached the crowd to find out what the fuss was about.
“I asked the police what was going on and the officer said, ‘It's him . . . The owner of MM&A.’”
Ed Burkhardt, the owner of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, did his company no favours in the aftermath of the train crash. His first reaction to the carnage came in interviews to English-language outlets, which enraged the profoundly francophone town where the disaster occurred. Next, the rail company issued a poorly translated written statement, inflaming passions further.
When he finally arrived in the devastated town under police protection, Burkhardt mused about his diminished personal fortune. He did apologize, but he blamed the train's driver, Tom Harding, for failing to apply a sufficient number of handbrakes to prevent the load from rolling away under its own weight.
To see the videos of Burkhardt's arrival in Lac-Mégantic is to marvel at Charest's restraint. There he is in one video with his hands in his short pockets beside a friend, held back from the media pack by police tape. There he is in another shifting back and forth to evade the TV cameras trying to capture the tears and anger of the townsfolk.
The footage doesn't tell you that this is a man who has lost everything. You don't know that he has provided police, fire and coroners' crews with an impossibly detailed inventory of Talitha, Bianka and Alyssa's apartment to help as they sift through the rubble, or personal items that might contain traces of their DNA. You can't see the faint hope that they somehow survived.
But a year later, he says that his anger mounted with every new detail that emerged about the origins of the disaster. It was fed at first by reports of the rail company's poor safety record, in spite of which the federal government granted rare approvals to operate with a one-man crew. It was amplified by the string of allegedly negligent acts that led to the derailment.
It did not ease when three people were arrested and charged, including Harding and two other company employees. Burkhardt, 75, walked away poorer but unpunished. The feeling lingers that so many died because of one rich rail baron's quest to boost profits.
“My girls are gone, but when he's gone, he won't need all that money,” Charest says.
The last year has been no easier for Talitha's parents or sisters. Gaston Begnoche, her father, has been left with the matters of his daughter's estate. He has filled out the forms, dealt with the lawyers and handled the finances.
Nadine Begnoche, Talitha's sister, says it has been a blur of adrenalin and she is only now starting to grieve.
“It's only in the last few weeks that I've truly realized what has happened — that they're gone forever and that I'll never be able to hold them in my arms,” she said in a written exchange.
“On July 6 my life and that of my family was changed forever and we now have to learn to live with this new reality which was caused by the negligence of many people and that could have been avoided.”
Her hope, she said, is severe punishment for those responsible, so that such a thing never happens again.
Two envelopes are all that was left for Charest. The remains of Talitha and Alyssa were delivered to him months later, once the gruelling task of identifying 40 of the 47 victims had been completed.
“When they delivered those two envelopes their souls weren't there. It was no longer them. All that was good about them is gone. A body is a body. What's important is what's inside,” he says.
In life, Bianka and Alyssa were his motivation. They were what pushed him to go to work even if it was a job he didn't particularly like. Without his girls, he was lost. Charest visited with a psychiatrist to try to come to terms with the grief, but sensed the doctor was himself struggling with the enormity of his loss.
“Even if there was a psychiatry course for this, you could never understand 100 per cent,” he says.
Charest is following his own path to recovery. In death, Bianka and Alyssa have pushed him to try to be a better person. The first step came months later, once the coroner had completed the job of identifying the victims of the derailment and once the three women in Charest's life had been laid to rest. He cut his ties to Lac-Mégantic.
“Every day I was becoming a little bit more lost, so I decided to leave,” he says. “I had choices to make. Either to go on living or to die there, to try to advance or possibly to have it end badly. From one day to the next I lost what I lived for, my motivation.”
He lives now in Sept-Îles, a town of 25,000 people on the rugged north shore of the St. Lawrence River. He is studying to become a heavy-machinery driver.
The new responsibilities bring with them a partial escape from the painful memories. He enjoys some anonymity among his fellow students. But every so often there are white hot reminders. The safety courses that drill into his head that a heavy-machine operator has ultimate responsibility for his equipment makes him angry all over again at the MM&A train engineer who has allegedly told police he set just seven handbrakes before heading to a local motel, fewer than half of what an independent investigator said would have been needed to secure the train.
Charest says he expects the pain will get easier with time, but it will stay with him for the rest of his life, whatever it may look like.
“It's harder than a restart because you're starting over knowing that you've lost everything.”