Rangeley’s fire chief describes Lac-Mégantic disaster, recommends planning and training

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Rangeley Fire Chief Tim Pellerin presents  Maine Sen. Susan Collins
Rangeley Fire Chief Tim Pellerin presents Maine Sen. Susan Collins with an autographed photograph by members of the Rangeley Fire Department of their department’s ladder truck flying an American flag while battling the fires in Lac-Mégantic last summer. Pellerin was invited by Collins to testify at a hearing on rail safety. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Collins office)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a congressional hearing on rail safety Wednesday, Rangeley Fire Chief Tim Pellerin told subcommittee members that it was evident that there was no emergency plan in place for the derailment disaster that destroyed several blocks of Lac-Mégantic’s downtown last summer and at no time did railroad officials offer help.

Among his recommendations were that a web-based, large-scale hazardous materials disaster training be available to all emergency responders.

In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Pellerin said he got a 4 a.m. call from the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency on July 6, 2013, asking that his department respond to a massive fire in the small lakeside community of little more than 6,000 people about 30 miles north of the U.S. border at Coburn Gore in northern Franklin County.

Eight trucks including two ladder trucks from Farmington and Rangeley responded, along with more than three dozen volunteer firefighters from several Franklin County towns.

“That morning there was no time to go to the computer to try and figure out what was burning up there,” Pellerin said when trying to figure out what plan and equipment would be needed. The fact that they were crossing the U.S border into Canada without any formal mutual aid agreement in place didn’t slow the Maine fire fighters down, he said, in response to a question by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a ranking member of the subcommittee. The hearing’s topic was keeping the railways in the U.S. safe for passengers and communities. Collins had invited Pellerin to testify.

“There was no hesitation,” Pellerin said of the call for help from Franklin County’s fire fighters. “We headed up to Canada for whatever was waiting for us.”

What was waiting for them were massive explosions and widespread fires after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic’s downtown, killing 47 people and leveling 30 buildings. On arrival the Maine firefighters found a language barrier but located someone who spoke both French and English to relay instructions back and forth between firefighters of both countries. The two ladder trucks proved to be especially helpful for getting water onto the tankers still filled with oil to keep them from overheating and causing further explosion.

He described the horrible scenes fire fighters witnessed as boiling crude oil ran down the residential streets as people stepped out for help.

“We are prepared for residential disasters but not something like this,” Pellerin said. The officials with the railroad had no plan in place for such an emergency. He said three railroad officials showed up on Saturday, took pictures then left.

Foam to effectively put out the stubborn oil fires, had to be shipped in from Toronto.

Franklin County’s fire fighters were on scene for 30 hours until the fires were out. They were cleared from the scene at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 7.

“There were hugs, cheers and tears,” Pellerin said as the Canadians thanked the Americans for their help. A focus throughout the ordeal, he noted, was a 4×6 American flag that hung on Rangeley’s ladder truck.

“It became a symbol of hope for the Canadians,” he said. In September, fire fighters from Quebec were invited to visit  Rangeley and the flag was presented to them as a gift.

Pellerin said planning, preparedness training and enforcement of regulations need to be thorough enough in the event that a disaster occurs in  a rural area like Lac-Mégantic. Usually it’s the full-time fire department personnel from the big cities who get the advanced training while it’s often impossible for the volunteer fire department members to be able to afford to take off work to attend the trainings, he said.

He called for integrated large-scale hazardous materials disaster training, such as a web-based program that can reach as many first responders and their mutual aid partners as possible, be implemented so that they can both train for large-scale hazardous materials events in conjunction with each other.

“We must do whatever we can to prevent this tragedy from happening again,” Pellerin said.

Collins called Pellerin’s testimony “both riveting and inspiring.”

Other witnesses included Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Department of Transportation; Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Barb Graff, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Seattle.

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