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Environment and Outdoors

Maine Conference Addresses Rail Disaster Readiness

A tragedy on the Canadian border a year ago has offered lessons for emergency responders here who must be prepared to confront a train derailment anywhere in the state. Fire and police officials who were called to the Lac Megantic derailment last year discussed the experience with their Maine counterparts during a two-day conference in Augusta. But as A.J. Higgins reports, those insights prompted some firefighters to recall their own rail disaster right here in Maine.

Two years before the deadly Lac-Megantic derailment in Quebec, Maine had its own rail tragedy.  On July 11, 2011 a trash truck failed to stop at an Amtrak crossing in North Berwick, just as the passenger train was approaching at 70 miles per hour.

The truck driver, Peter Barnum of Farmington, N.H., is believed to have died instantly as his vehicle's diesel fuel tanks exploded on impact with the train. None of train's crew or 112 passengers received any life-threatening injuries.   

North Berwick Deputy Fire Chief Larry Straffin says for first responders, the annual Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference has become the next best thing to first-hand experience.

"Now they figured out, hey, if we can all come together, you know, things are going to get a lot better," Straffin said.

While Straffin's derailment experience in North Berwick is a far cry from the inferno that struck Lac Megantic, Quebec, both situations carry similar potential dangers for firefighter and others.

Lt. Daniel Campagna is the director of the Quebec Police, in the regional municipality of Granit County. Speaking to emergency responders, he recalled the galvanizing moment of his career.

"At 1:17 the train derails in downtown Lac Megantic, multiple explosions, major fire, high heat," Campagna said.

The unattended 74-car freight train carrying crude oil destroyed nearly half of the downtown area when multiple tank cars caught fire and exploded. Forty-two people were confirmed dead, 5 more missing and presumed dead from the fire that Campagna says engulfed the community.

"You have burning oil runs towards houses and enters the sewer system, burning oil spilled into the lake," Campagna said. "What happened is downtown is a little bit higher than the lake as you can imagine. So there was a big wave of lava of crude oil burning and went down and burned everything that was on its way until it went into the lake. Some of the firefighters said it was the first time I see a lake on fire."

Fire officials cited accessibility to communication lines and knowing who to call as major factors that can determine an effective response to a train derailment. And while others have speculated on whether Maine is actually prepared to deal with a Lac Megantic situation, Dick Towle, of the Federal Railroad Administration in Cambridge, Mass. offers this assessment.

"Nobody was prepared for anything as big as Lac Megantic," Towle says. "They are training for it, we're all learning every day. Can I say that everybody is ready and can handle it? How can we ever be ready for all the situations you run into?"

Bruce Fitzgerald, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, agrees. But but he also says seminars, constant training and the mutual support of the state's emergency coordinators offer reassurance.

"And so it's the strength of mutual aid, it's having our first responder teams trained and equipped to be able to go anywhere and deal with the situation," Fitzgerald says.

In addition to MEMA, the two-day conference was co-sponsored by the State Emergency Response Commission and the Maine Association for Local Emergency Managers.