Train derailment goes from regional news to global story

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We'll go north of the border this week in discussing a horrific news story whose magnitude grew from that of a train derailment on July 6 to something much more significant and tragic.

In fact, the story of the train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, wasn't accurately portrayed in the original reports. It was a derailment, technically, but the world would learn after a few days that the train derailed because, according to the company owner, the engineer failed to set the brakes properly. In the middle of the night, the unmanned train hurtled down a seven-mile incline, derailed and ignited. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

The first story filed by AP was at 10:39 a.m. last Saturday. It wasn't very long - five paragraphs - but did include a fair amount of detail. There was a hint of the magnitude of the accident in this sentence, "Some of the train's 73 cars exploded and the fire spread to a number of homes."

Just an hour later, the severity was coming into focus with a quote from a local resident: "We've never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone." The story also told how worried residents looked on amid fears that some of their friends and loved ones may have died in their homes.

But that fear was tempered by a quote from a police officer at a news conference.

"We're told some people are missing but they may just be out of town or on vacation."

It wasn't until about 4 p.m. July 6 that AP confirmed one person dead in Lac-Mégantic. While that day's reporting told that "many" people were still missing, the story moved into the second day with just "one confirmed dead."

By the end of Sunday, the confirmed death total was at five. That was still far shy, however, of what would be reported by mid-week as the story continued to advance from regional train accident to a worldwide spectacle of tragedy.

As we all now know, the death toll estimate grew to a staggering 50 people by mid-week. As of early Friday, only 24 bodies had been recovered.

The derailment is Canada's worst railway disaster since a train plunged into a Quebec river in 1864, killing 99.

CBC News-Montreal offered this description in a story posted at its website Friday:

"Shell-shocked residents of Lac-Mégantic took a small step toward normalcy on Friday after homes and businesses reopened just yards away from the lakeside town's devastated centre.

"Police erected a 2.5-metre fence blocking from view what was once the downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops - but which now resembles a blackened war zone."

Lac-Mégantic has a population of about 6,000 (a third of which had to be evacuated because of the crash). That's similar in size to Shamokin, and gives us pause for what it must be like for the unfortunate inhabitants of that community.

No doubt the rural location of Lac-Mégantic- 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of the Maine border - had an impact on the slow ramp-up of media facts. Also, the considerable resources expended on the George Zimmerman trial in Florida kept it down somewhat in the pecking order. In the end, however, it will represent one of the biggest and certainly most tragic news stories of the year.

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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