FARMINGTON, Maine — When firefighters from Franklin County got the call to go to Lac-Megantic, Quebec, early Saturday, they started rolling out.
Seven departments and about 30 firefighters from Chesterville, Eustis, Farmington, New Vineyard, Phillips, Strong and Rangeley went to render aid in the devastating fire caused by a runaway train carrying crude oil which exploded early Saturday.
At least 13 people were killed and some 37 are still missing, according to Canadian police. About 30 buildings reportedly were destroyed.
Four Farmington firefighters left about 5 a.m. in the Farmington Fire Rescue Department’s Tower 3 and a pickup truck.
They arrived in Lac-Megantic at about 6:30 a.m., Lt. Tim “T.D.” Hardy said. Three other firefighters from Farmington followed later.
The emergency responders were waved through the border, he said.
Lac-Megantic had lost all power and phone lines, said Farmington Deputy Chief Tim Hardy, Hardy’s father. He is also the director of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency.
People at the border had a request from Lac-Megantic that they needed firefighters and Class A foam, which is used to put out residential house fires, the elder Hardy said. The residences were gone by the time they arrived.
He was told early on that a train had derailed, and there was a possibility of gasoline in the cars, he said.
All but one of the 73 cars carried thousands of gallons of crude oil, according to The Associated Press. Not all exploded.
The train rolled down the hill about 7 miles into the area, Deputy Chief Hardy said.
When the firefighters drove closer to the scene, they could see flames and black smoke billowing up from the wreckage.
“You could see firetrucks lining the street,” Farmington Fire Chief Terry Bell said.
The scene reminded Lt. Hardy of the historic photos of the Great Fire of 1886, which destroyed downtown Farmington. Lac-Megantic was similar to downtown Farmington, he said.
All the bricks from the old buildings were lying on the ground, he said.
“Thirty-plus buildings were gone,” he said. “The roads were gone.”
Firefighters waited for an assignment at the command post.
One issue they faced was the language barrier at the command post, where many of them spoke mostly French, Deputy Chief Hardy said.
“Just being in a command post is chaotic — but being in one with a different language is really chaotic, because you don’t know what is going on,” Bell said.
They received their assignment at 11:30 a.m, which coordinated all of the Franklin County trucks to work together.
Eustis firefighters arrived early on and pumped water from a lake down Main Street to other trucks, he said. Firefighters from Chesterville, New Vineyard, Strong and Phillips did the same when they arrived.
Rangeley also pumped water to trucks and used its Tower 3 to cool off train cars, as did Farmington, Lt. Hardy said. They worked on the cars that hadn’t exploded, some of which were on fire.
The younger Hardy said he has trained on hazardous materials and flammable liquid, but nothing like what they dealt with in Quebec.
“We don’t have trains come through here,” he said of Farmington. “It is pretty unreal.”
“We knew it was more than routine, and nothing we have ever seen before and probably never will,” Bell said. “Hopefully we never will. We did what was asked of us. We would go back and help, if needed. Everything worked well. Very nice people, very helpful, friendly. We are sorry for their loss.”
Lac-Megantic is the sister city of Farmington, a bond formed in 1991.
Ryan Morgan, chairman of the Farmington Board of Selectmen, said in an email he would like to personally reach out to the citizens of Lac-Megantic, and stand with them in their time of sorrow.
As their sister city, he said, “our thoughts, hearts and prayers are with” them.
There are no words to describe what has happened and the pain that they are feeling, he said, but Farmington is there for them.
“Even though we are divided by a line on the map, we are all fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and so forth and understand the fear and sorrow [their] great city is feeling now,” he said.
Morgan also issued thanks to all of the Franklin County firefighters who responded to help out.