LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Heading into 2013, Lac-Megantic was known as a quiet holiday town in a Quebec region recognized abroad for its mountaintop observatory and its inky, starry skies.
The community finishes the year remembered for a deadly train crash that horrified people around the world and ignited a fire so big its rage could be seen from space.
Last summer's Lac-Megantic derailment, which killed 47 people and pushed the issue of rail safety into the spotlight, has been voted Canada's 2013 News Story of the Year in the annual survey of the country's newsrooms by The Canadian Press.
Editors and news directors across Canada selected a story that circled the world after a runaway train hauling crude oil careened off the tracks and exploded, levelling dozens of buildings in the heart of town.
The multiple layers to the July 6 catastrophe attracted interest with its gripping stories of survival and loss, the vast environmental consequences and the stunning images of the devastation. It also launched new debates about the continent's boom in oil-by-rail traffic.
In the News Story of the Year poll, the Lac-Megantic tragedy received nearly 31 per cent of the ballots cast. Voters were asked to either choose a story from a list of candidates or to nominate their own selection.
"The Lac-Megantic disaster was one which caused everyone who lives in a small Canadian city, or town that has freight trains rumbling through it, (to) stop and ponder, 'That could happen to me some day,' " said Murray Guy, assistant managing editor for the Times & Transcript in Moncton, N.B.
"From the sheer enormity of the death, destruction and upheaval for a small community's way of life, to the shaken trust we all have in our rail safety laws, Lac-Megantic will likely become a red-letter day in the world of railway safety."
Adrienne Tanner, deputy editor for the Vancouver Sun, said, "Disasters don't get any bigger. A human tragedy with a lot of political and policy implications going forward."
The Lac-Megantic story edged the Senate expenses scandal, which received 24 per cent of the votes.
Voters who chose the Senate controversy argued it's an issue that could bring long-lasting change to Canada.
"The Senate expense story strikes a deep core visceral nerve with readers," Jim Poling, the Hamilton Spectator's managing editor, said of a scandal that has swamped the Prime Minister's Office.
"It's about the money, but it's mostly about the entitlement. It's a story that has the potential to change the structure of government in Canada and who its leaders are."
Rob Ford, Toronto's notorious mayor who admitted to smoking crack cocaine, finished third after amassing nearly 23 per cent of the vote. Those who selected the Ford story, which became the butt of jokes on American late-night TV shows, said they made their choice based on how much attention it grabbed around the world.
"Very tough choice," said Colin McNeil, web editor for Metro News.
"But ... the Rob Ford scandal caught fire nationally and globally in a way none of the other, more 'serious' stories did."
A media-monitoring firm found that the Ford story generated 1.4 times more international news coverage in 2013 than the Lac-Megantic disaster.
But the world still took notice of the rail tragedy — in a big way.
It remained a top-3 worldwide news item over the first four days following the disaster and reached as far away as Kuwait, India and the Philippines, says a recently released study by Montreal-based Influence Communication.
"Media organizations are attracted to the dramatic (side of a story)," said Influence spokeswoman Eve Couture, who noted the crash also launched public discussions about oil-by-rail transport and prompted long investigations by authorities.
"It's a mysterious story that had many mysterious elements: an unmanned train that hurtled down a hill that blew up a village."
The analysis also says Lac-Megantic generated more coverage within Quebec than any story since the start of the century, ahead of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The results of the News Story of the Year survey also suggest that geography played a role in the voting. The train disaster was selected by 55 per cent of newsrooms polled in Quebec, but was the top choice of only 26 per cent of the voters based outside the province.
In Lac-Megantic, the mayor believes the crash that struck her community of 6,000 has potential repercussions for people across Canada and beyond.
"I think this tragedy allowed the whole world to reflect on rail safety," Colette Roy-Laroche told The Canadian Press in a recent interview at the sports centre in Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
Roy-Laroche hopes all the attention generated by the disaster will inspire governments and companies around the globe to push for improvements to train security.
Trains returned last week to Lac-Megantic, where the economy relies on the railroad, for the first time since the derailment. For now, trains that cross through town will only carry non-hazardous materials.
The community greeted the rebirth of the rail line with difficulty, as people here slowly rebuild their lives amid a prolonged grieving period.
The town's tranquil region of rolling hills, popular with outdoor enthusiasts, is perhaps best known for the nearby Mont-Megantic observatory. Stargazing is made easier here thanks to the internationally recognized "dark-sky reserve" that blankets the area, established through local efforts to reduce night-time light pollution.
On July 6, the glow of the fire from the 1 a.m. derailment was so bright it could be seen in a NASA satellite image captured an hour after the crash.
The mayor was among those who witnessed the terrifying blaze from the ground with her own eyes.
Roy-Laroche, who lives outside of downtown, was jolted awake by her ringing phone shortly after that initial explosion.
Someone she worked with at the municipality was on the line and told her: "Ms. Roy-Laroche, the train derailed downtown and the city is on fire."
Roy-Laroche said she and her husband quickly rushed toward downtown Lac-Megantic by car, and when they couldn't drive any further, they moved even closer to the damaged area by foot.
"The flames were so big, so high — we even heard noises, small explosions," she said of the inferno ignited by the volatile crude oil in the tankers.
"People were crying, people were screaming."
The blast had obliterated dozens of buildings in the downtown core, including a bustling bar and the library. Meanwhile, millions of litres of crude gushed from the rail cars into the environment.
The mayor received several disturbing updates from firefighters at the front line — those reports included an expanding list of structures that had vanished. Up to 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes and Roy-Laroche said she quickly began preparations to set up an emergency shelter at a local high school.
All of this, she figures, happened within the first hour.
"We had to think quickly and I didn't have time to cry," Roy-Laroche recalled.
One of her next challenges was to handle the sudden, intensive media attention amid the unfolding crisis.
The small-town mayor was the first to address a joint news conference, held only a few hours after the derailment, alongside officials from the fire department, police service and provincial government.
As she spoke on a street just outside downtown, an unknown number of residents were still unaccounted for and smashed tanker cars continued to burn in the background.
Roy-Laroche said she was stunned by the number of news cameras that had already descended on her community.
"That's when my emotions rose — I'd say it was the only time that I truly felt weak," said Roy-Laroche, who later became a household name in Quebec for her poise and calm demeanour while handling the catastrophe.
"When I saw the cameras, that's when I realized that at least (the entire province of) Quebec was listening to me."
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