Lac-Mégantic: "It made me want to be a better reporter"
The phone calls from producers and editors began early in the morning on Saturday, July 6. A train accident and explosion had devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., only hours before.
“I got a call at 6:30 a.m. saying that something was going on, but they weren’t quite sure what it was,” says Riley Sparks, a summer intern at the Montreal Gazette who studies photography at Concordia and has worked as a journalist for the student newspaper The Link.
Sparks is one of more than 20 students and former students who experienced the tragedy firsthand as reporters.
Sparks arrived at The Gazette’s office at 9:30 a.m. He was quickly dispatched to the scene. “When I got there, probably at about one o’clock in the afternoon, I was absolutely amazed because the fire was still going,” he says.
Another Concordian, CBC reporter Thomas Daigle, had just arrived in the small town of 6,000 residents. Like Sparks, he was surprised to see firefighters battling the flames.
“There was still a real sense of immediacy,” he says. “In fact, they had to evacuate a number of homes at that time because there was a danger of more explosions.”
When Daigle filed his first report for CBC’s The National, a massive plume of black smoke was visible behind him.
As Sparks got to work, The Gazette dispatched two more reporters, Christopher Curtis and Laura Beeston (of Concordia’s Department of Journalism and The Link) to Lac-Mégantic. When they showed up around 8 p.m., the massive fire continued to burn. Flames shot into the sky 15 metres above the town.
“It was huge,” says Beeston. “I can’t impress that enough. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Although Beeston and Curtis had been told they didn’t need to file that day, they felt compelled to begin working. “I remember thinking, this is one of those rare moments in history where you’re there, and the story needs to be told,” Curtis says.
“We just started talking to people and gathering some really compelling stuff about their lives, and this terrifying moment where they didn’t know what was going on. They saw their city blowing up and they had to just run away in the darkness.”
The journalists say they were amazed by how willing local people were to tell their stories. “Within the first hour after I got there, I spoke to a guy who’d been in a bar next to the site of the explosion, and he was talking about how, as far as he knew, he was the only one of all of his friends in the bar who was still alive,” Sparks recalls.
Over the next few days, the world’s media converged on the formerly bucolic town: dozens of press briefings were held, and thousands of reports were filed. For the journalists, the days passed in a blur. “We were getting up at 5 a.m. and going to bed at midnight,” Beeston says. “Even when we were off, we were talking about what types of stories we should pursue.”
Time and again the magnitude of the tragedy they were covering was made clear. “We were shooting pictures at the church when they rang the church bell 50 times for the 50 victims,” Daigle says. “Maybe a few metres away from me, I saw a couple, clearly a mother and a father, kneeling by a cross, planting a picture of their son by the cross, kneeling and crying and praying. It was so difficult to see.”
Curtis says he was struck by the bravery and resilience shown by the town’s residents. He remembers one particular encounter with a local man whose home was destroyed in the fire. The man was living in a motel with his family. “He walks over to me and says, ‘Listen, I have a message that I want you to get out there. We’re sticking together, and we’re fighting, and we’re going to rebuild this city. I don’t want you guys to leave. I want you guys to be here for that.”
Now, two weeks on, the young journalists interviewed for this story have started to process what they saw and heard, and to realize how profoundly their reporting on the tragedy has affected them.
“I’ve never covered something like this in my life,” Beeston says. Finding the balance between getting the hard news out while approaching the personal stories of tragedy with humility and humanity was extremely challenging.
“It’s made me want to be a better reporter in so many ways,” she adds. “A story like this reminds me why I’m doing this.”
Curtis says he has wrestled with feelings of guilt brought on by the assignment, coupled with sadness for the victims. In spite of this, he remains convinced their story needs to be told.
“You feel bad about it,” he says. “But it’s also important that people read about people just like them in a small town — how they’ve had their lives torn apart, and how they’re dealing with it.”
• “Concordia community extends sympathies to Lac-Mégantic residents” — NOW, July 8, 2013
• Department of Journalism
• The Gazette
Alumni on the scene
A number of Concordia alumni, many of whom are recent graduates, covered the tragic events at Lac-Mégantic for various media outlets.
“They are handling the story with thoroughness and journalistic integrity," says Brian Gabrial, chair of the university’s Department of Journalism.
Here is the current list — which grows daily — of alumni who have been on site at Lac-Mégantic:
• Peggy Curran (The Gazette), BA (Eng. & hist.) 78
• Ingrid Peritz (The Globe and Mail), BA (journ. & urban studies) 82
• Mark Kelley (CBC), BA (journ.) 85
• Debra Arbec (CBC), BA (journ.) 89
• Ioanna Roumeliotis (CBC), BA (journ.) 91
• Shuyee Lee (CJAD), BA (comm. studies & journ.) 92
• Mike Armstrong (Global National), BA (poli. sci) 93, GrDip (journ.) 95
• Linda Gyulai (The Gazette), GrDip (journ.) 93
• Genevieve Beauchemin (CTV), GrDip (journ.) 94
• Lauren McCallum (CBC), BA (journ.) 95
• Phil Carpenter (The Gazette), BA (comm. studies) 97
• Tim Sargeant (Global Montreal), BA (journ.) 97
• Mike LeCouteur (Global National), BA (journ.) 00
• Catherine Solyom (The Gazette), GrDip (journ.) 00
• Andy Blatchford (CP), BA (human environment) 03, GrDip (journ.) 05
• Catherine Cullen (CBC), GrDip (journ.) 05
• Aaron Derfel (The Gazette), BA 06
• Raffy Boudjikanian (CBC), BA (journ.) 07
• Ben Shingler (CP), GrDip (journ.) 08
• Thomas Daigle (CBC), BA (journ.) 10
• Dan Spector (CJAD), BA (journ.) 10
• Justin Giovanetti (The Globe and Mail), BA (journ. & poli. sci.) 11
• Willy Lowry (CBC), BA (journ.) 11
• Peter Tardif (CBC), BA (journ.) 11
• Aalia Adam (Global News), BA (journ.) 12
• Emily Brass (CBC), BA (journ.) 12
• Michel Boyer (CJAD), BA (journ.) 12
• Laura Beeston (The Gazette), BA (journ. & women’s studies) 13
• Megan Dolski (CP), BA (journ.) 13
• Jacques Gallant (The Star), BA (journ./French lit.) 13
• Adam Kovac (The Gazette), BA (journ. & poli. sci.) 13
• Riley Sparks (The Gazette), photography (not yet graduated)
• Christopher Curtis (The Gazette), journalism (not yet graduated)