RANGELEY, Maine — The town’s fire chief will discuss what he found as a first responder to a train disaster that wiped out the center of a Quebec town last summer, killing 47 people, when he testifies before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Wednesday.
Chief Tim Pellerin and a team of volunteer Franklin County firefighters were among the first to respond to the Lac-Megantic fire on July 6, 2013. In a press statement, Sen. Susan Collins said she invited him to testify to the U.S. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee about the response, the challenges faced and lessons learned.
Pellerin said he also would testify on behalf of a bill Collins supports that would appropriate federal funds to train firefighters to handle large-scale petroleum fires in trains and other transports. The hearing is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Wednesday at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington.
“Every fire department in the nation is prepared for common emergencies, but it is the uncommon events that we have to prepare and train for,” Pellerin, 52, said Tuesday.
A firefighter for 33 years, Pellerin arrived in Lac-Megantic about six hours after the derailment. He said he was amazed by the evidence that oil from the tankers had run through the town like lava, destroying everything it touched.
“It was complete decimation, like a nuclear device had gone off,” Pellerin said. “It looked like a war zone. That’s really the best way to say it.”
Other witnesses will include Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Department of Transportation; Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Barb Graff, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Seattle, Collins said.
The runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, igniting several of its 72 tanker cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Company officials have said an engineer might have failed to set enough manual brakes on the train so that it rolled out of control after local firefighters turned off the locomotive, releasing its air-brake system, when they doused a fire onboard.
Crude oil discovered to be far more explosive than generally realized and flaws in the tankers carrying it might also have contributed to the disaster, officials have said.
The tragedy has forced the railway to lay off 79 of its 179 workers, including 19 Canadians, closed a major track into Quebec, and spurred rail safety reviews on both sides of the border and lawsuits from victims.
The U.S. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee is among the reviewing agencies.
Many of the jobs have been refilled since another company announced its intention to buy the rail service from bankruptcy earlier this year. The sale is pending.
The Lac-Megantic track has since reopened.