In the Heart of a Tragedy: A Day in the Life of the Lac-Mégantic Investigator-in-Charge

ISSN 2369-873X

27 October 2014
Posted by: Don Ross

On July 6, 2013, I was sleeping when the phone rang in the early hours of the morning. Having been involved in the transportation safety industry for almost 40 years, I was used to being woken up by a ringtone. But when I picked up the phone that night, I could not have guessed how much that call would change my life.

From the serenity of my surroundings in Nova Scotia, I heard the professional voice of Darlene Roosenboom, our head office standby coordinator that night, recount the alarming information: bad train derailment; a lot of smoke; dangerous goods; a town on fire; and many residents evacuated. That’s pretty much all that was known when I was deployed. But as the hours unfolded, much more information came in and everyone realized how big of a tragedy this was.

Once I arrived at the site of the disaster, it was quite overwhelming to be faced with the unknown–over 100 people were unaccounted for, and buildings were burning all around. When I finally had a chance to go to bed for a couple of hours, I could see the flames from the burning downtown through my motel window, as thoughts of the task ahead were jostling through my mind.

We had to get organized quickly, which is what we did. I had an excellent team who needed little direction. We knew that we would be on site for quite a while, since there was a tremendous amount of work to be done. We started documenting the site as soon as possible, while working with the many other organizations that were also there, and communicating what we knew to the public. Emotionally, it was a huge challenge. I think it’s fair to say that no one can be fully prepared for this.

Don Ross answering questions from
the media in Lac-Mégantic
Image of Don Ross answering questions from the media in Lac-Mégantic

As the days went by, the long hours, the hard work, the stress, the heat, and the emotional experiences, all took their toll. Every day that we spent there, we were surrounded by people who had lost someone: the motel’s housekeeper, the waitress at the local restaurant, the firefighters that were helping out on site, and many more. Everyone dealt with the situation as best as they could, and the TSB provided counseling help for all team members on site.

A very moving moment for me personally was on the day that the memorial service was held at the town’s church. I, and several other members of the team, were standing outside on the sidewalk, watching the procession after the service as everyone left the church. They walked from the church to the sports centre, where a small reception was planned. Families of the victims were holding flowers as they walked by. As I was standing there, beside my colleagues, there was not one single family holding a flower that did not make eye contact with me, saying “merci,” or alter their course by walking over to personally shake my hand, with a “merci or thank you.” Some said that they “trusted us.” The connection was powerful! At a time when our own emotions were depleted, that moment gave us the energy and motivation needed to complete the work. We were doing our work for those people. And they were counting on us.

Don Ross at the final
investigation report release
news conference
Image of Don Ross at the final investigation report release news conference

After approximately one month spent collecting information and evidence from the site, and conducting many interviews as well as tests in the surrounding areas, including several locations in Maine, the team headed back to Ottawa to pursue the investigation. Numerous things were brought back to our laboratoryincluding wheel sets, brake shoes, the locomotive event recorder, different rail parts, crude oil samples, etc. Of course, more testing, interviews and analysis was to be done outside the office throughout the following months, in places such as Farnham, Montreal, and Saint John.

As for the report, the size and complexity of the investigation demanded a different approach from our regular rail investigations. Obviously, a huge amount of work went into the production of this 219-page report, and the associated 25 (plus) engineering branch reports—whether it was related to the content, the technical review, the editing or the translation. A lot of work was also required to consolidate all the facts and the findings, and to ensure that the final report would cover the causes and contributing factors, as well as all the safety issues.

Many team members made a lot of personal sacrifices over the past year. I am very proud of them and of the work they did. I feel honoured and privileged to have led them through this investigation. Now that the dust has finally started to settle, I’m glad to be back home in Halifax with my beautiful (and patient!) wife, Caroline, who supported me throughout. She paid a price as well as I was away from home for a little more than a year, and missed two of our last wedding anniversaries.

I know that this investigation will be a game changer in the transportation industry. As a result, there will be a number of safety improvements. The safety lessons from Lac-Mégantic and the work of the TSB team will not soon be forgotten, that’s for sure.

Image of Don Ross

Don Ross is a senior investigator, Rail/Pipeline, for the Atlantic Region. He holds a Certified Health and Safety Consultant designation and a Professional Member designation from the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering. He is married, has 3 children, and 6 grandchildren. He loves spending time at his cottage in Cape Breton with his family, and enjoys genealogy as a hobby.

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