By sheer luck, Makivik engineer, family survive Lac-Mégantic disaster
Explosion obliterates Miroslav Chum’s 10-room house
Miroslav Chum counts himself lucky to have been working in Kangiqsujuaq on July 5.
If he were at the other end of Quebec, back at his home in Lac-Mégantic that Friday night, he could have fallen victim to one of the worst rail disasters in Canadian history.
“Fortunately no one was at the house. But it’s really, by incredible luck,” he said June 12.
Chum, his spouse and two sons are temporarily settled in with friends in a nearby town after their house burned to the ground in the huge explosion and crude oil fire that levelled downtown Lac-Mégantic, including his house, early in the morning of July 6.
Chum, 48, once lived in Kuujjuaq and worked as a hydrology engineer in Nunavik for 15 years, often employed on projects involving Arctic char stocks.
He bought his house in southern Quebec a year ago, and moved in with his family just one month before the disaster.
“It’s just incredible, because it’s a big house and a lot of friends visited all the time,” he said. “Imagine on a Friday evening, it’s a very nice area, everybody’s just drinking a beer and taking it easy.”
Fortunately that wasn’t the case for Chum, his spouse Geneviève and sons aged four and seven.
He was on his way back from the North on Saturday morning, his wife in the nearby city of Sherbrooke for some work on a last-minute translation contract, and the kids staying with friends at a nearby village.
At around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday, July 6, a runaway tanker-train derailed in the centre of Lac-Mégantic. Carloads of crude ignited and oil spilled, causing a massive explosion and fire that wiped out several buildings within and around the town centre.
As of July 14, 33 people were known to have died and 17 others missing and presumed dead. The federal Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident and the provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, are conducting a criminal investigation.
Police have cordoned off the area hit by the disaster, which includes Chum’s house.
“It’s a forbidden area right now, it’s only the SQ and firemen who have access, so I didn’t see my house,” Chum said by phone from the nearby village of Saint-Romain, where he and his family are staying temporarily.
Chum first noticed something was wrong at 4 a.m. that Saturday in Kangirsujuaq, he said, when he got up to do some work and check the news online.
“I saw a picture on a very short message. There was some smoke downtown and some fire but I thought we are pretty far from the place,” he said, since his house was almost 400 metres from the town centre, on the Lac-Mégantic shoreline.
Chum thought nothing of it until he flew to Kuujjuaq later that morning, on his way to Montreal and southern Quebec. Stopping by with some friends during his lay-over, another look at the news confirmed the worst.
“I looked at the pictures and I saw that it’s finished for the downtown (Lac-Mégantic), and especially of course for my house.”
Landing in Montreal that evening, Chum called his wife and made the three-hour drive to town, knowing little about what had happened.
On arrival, he found much of the town off-limits, including his neighbourhood. Police directed him to a crisis centre in a school, where evacuees had been put up.
“I didn’t see my house,” he said. “I saw a few pictures, but there is nothing.”
Photos of the site on Facebook show an incinerated landscape, probably caused by streams of ignited oil, he said, which burned through everything.
“I suppose a lot of firemen and policemen took the pictures with iPhones and small cameras,” he said.
The engineer said it appears the fire was severe enough to completely melt streetlight and outdoor lamp fixtures.
“They were completely melted on the street, by the heat,” he said. “You couldn’t see them, absolutely nothing.”
As a hydrologist, Chum works on aspects of engineering related to waterways, including dams and streams.
A former employee of Makivik Corp. in Nunavik, he now works as a freelancer on engineering contracts throughout Quebec, including recurring contracts with Makivik.
When contacts within the development corporation heard of his loss, they raised $2,125 for him and his family.
“Of course we appreciate this help and the support, not only material but psychological support from everybody,” he said.
Chum continues to work on engineering contracts despite of the loss of the house, where he also kept his office.
His work week following the accident continued without interruption, he said, with contracts to complete in the Montreal area.
“It’s pretty difficult, because you have no office, you do it with your kids,” he laughed. “It’s not easy but it’s okay.”
It’s too early to tell what will come of the loss of the family home, he said, a large 100-year-old house with more than 10 rooms, which happened to be one of the biggest houses in Lac-Mégantic.
Chum did several renovations to the house a full year before the family moved in this summer.
Despite this, he said his family is set to stay in Lac-Mégantic. Their main challenge now is to find a new home to rent.
“I think I don’t realize how big the catastrophe is,” he said, much like the town.
“We feel there is great support,” he added. “I would like to say a big thank-you to the northern community.”