Raymond Lafontaine - Date unknown Peter Kuitenbrouwer.
11 July 2013
Town Rallies Around Local Businessman Vowing to Make Sure Crude Never Passes Through Ravaged Lake Megantic Again
Lake Megantic Quebec - Raymond Lafontaine, whose companies employ 175 people, lost a son and two daughters-in-law, along with a secretary, in Saturday's explosion in Lake Megantic. In the days since, he has emerged as a leader among the town's citizens, mixing calm determination with raw anger and the courage to speak out.
In the minutes after Saturday's explosion, he rushed to the town's centre, using one of his front-end loaders to pour gravel and smashing buildings to stop the path of the flames. Then, beginning on Monday, he emerged to speak publicly, and resolutely, a native son who shares his town's grief, and carries its pride.
Shaking with rage he told reporters on Wednesday that he, personally, will make sure that trains of crude oil don't pass through town the way they did before the blast.
"I am not a terrorist," he said. "There is a way to organize this. That track was laid to transport wood. The government needs to put on its shoes," he said, using a French expression for taking charge.
He says that, two days after the blast, he had a vision where he spoke to his dead father, who told him to speak out.
"Ninety percent of people would be at home crying," he said. "I have been crying for two days."
Lake Megantic is a blue-collar place, where big factories transform hardwood into veneer and sawdust into pressboard. When a man in this town wears a faded t-shirt, dirt-smeared blue workpants, and worn black steel-toed boots, he commands respect.
On Wednesday, dressed in such work clothes, Mr. Lafontaine came into the heart of Lake Megantic to speak to Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose train's explosion took his family members. Mr. Lafontaine also spoke with Yves Bourdon, another MMA railway employee.
Many shouted insults, calling Mr. Burkhardt a "rat", and "rotted meat", as he spoke to reporters. Mr. Lafontaine waited for Mr. Burkhardt to leave, then called him an "assassin," but also spoke calmly in French to Yves Bourdon, another MMA railway employee.
"I can't believe his sang-froid," said Gilles Fluet, a retiree who lives nearby. "There are people who would have wrung the neck of that guy from the railroad. Him, when it was over he shook his hand."
Politicians are beginning to notice him. On Thursday as Mr. Lafontaine ate lunch at Le Chateau, a Lake Megantic restaurant, Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier, who was lunching two tables over, came by to shake his hand.
After days of trying, Mr. Lafontaine said he also spoke to Denis Lebel, the federal transport minister, and Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister.
"I told them, I am not a separatist," Mr. Lafontaine said, standing outside the local high school, Polyvalente Montignac, which emergency workers have turned into a hostel for hundreds of families still homeless after the blast. "I just want to stop them transporting dangerous goods through our town."
Later he said, "The Indians raise a feather and people listen to them. We want the government to listen to us."
Mr. Lafontaine, 65, was born on a dirt road, one of 14 children in a family who milked Holstein cattle and collected sap for maple syrup. Through hard work, he said, he built up a big business.
When the initial blasts from exploding and burning tank cars filled with crude oil put the town ablaze, Mr. Lafontaine was asleep at home.
In six minutes he drove to the site, he said, then he and his employees, he owns paving, excavation, and granite companies, brought loaders into the burning heart of town. They poured loads of gravel into manholes, to prevent crude oil from draining and spreading. They tore down houses to stop the fire.
His son Pascal took a loader, he says, and hauled eight undamaged oil tanker cars back up the hill to Nantes, whence they had come.
Editor's Note: There is conflicting data as to who actually pulled tank cars from the Lac Megantic fire.
Pascal's wife, Karine Lafontaine, died in the blaze that night, leaving behind three children.
Bouquets of flowers fill the office of Lafontaine & Fils, which smelled like a florist Thursday. With tears in her eyes, secretary Luce Gagnon showed photos on the front counter of those who died, along with Karine Lafontaine they are, Gaetan Lafontaine, 33, and his wife Joannie Turmel, who leave two little girls, and Marie-Noelle Faucher, an employee.
Mr. Lafontaine said that on Friday he and a production company plan to launch a video of a song they have recorded for a fundraising campaign, which the town of Lake Megantic will manage, to build a park in the city in memory of those who have died.
As he spoke, several locals waited in the parking lot to shake Mr. Lafontaine's hand. "You are an icon," one man told him.