Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fatal rail explosion touches artist

Creates portraits of Lac-Mégantic tragedy victims

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WINNIPEG BEACH -- Julia Penny was a schoolgirl the day a mountain of coal slurry overwhelmed a Welsh school, burying 116 children and 28 adults alive.

She never forgot that day in 1966.

Last summer, another disaster tripped open her memory after an oil train derailed and exploded in July in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

The English-born portrait artist now lives on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. She couldn't stop thinking about two little girls who died in the fireball.

"They were three and nine, Alyssa and Bianka Begmoche, and they lived in one of the upstairs apartments. Their mother died too," Penny said Sunday at her cottage-country Black Dog Art Studio.

"She was only 30. I have a 28-year-old son. Those girls, they were asleep in their beds when it happened and they probably went to bed saying that prayer, 'If I should die before I wake...' "

Whole families died when the runaway train catapulted down a mountain and exploded in the centre of the small village, Penny said. She sketched portraits of Alyssa and Bianka, then the 45 others who were killed.

'They are my gift to the town and the survivors... my wish is not to disrupt, but to honour those who died...'

Winnipeg Beach artist Julia Penny, who drew images of each person who perished when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded in Quebec last July.

Her portrait of the little girls shows them with their arms around each other, grinning with delight.

This Thursday, Penny will show the black and white pencil portraits at the Cre8ery Gallery, 125 Adelaide St., in Winnipeg. The exhibit runs to April 1. The portraits were drawn from photographs Penny gathered online.

The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.

In a letter Penny sent to Lac-Mégantic, which was translated into French by a friend, she told the town what the impact felt like to her: "The loss of life left me speechless and then angry that such a thing happened."

Penny is shipping the drawings to Lac-Mégantic in time for the one-year anniversary.

"They are my gift to the town and the survivors... my wish is not to disrupt, but to honour those who died and let you know that July 6 will not go unnoticed," she wrote in her letter to the town.

She said out of respect for the dead, her portraits are tributes and not for sale.

The Quebec town has not responded to her gesture.

Every portrait comes with a vial hanging like a pull cord from the pitch black borders that frame every face. The vials are filled with ashes from a friend's wood fire. They represent the ashes that were left of the vicitms.

"Vials of ashes. That's all that was left of them," Penny said.

In three or four cases, DNA couldn't be sifted from the rubble so ashes became her talisman, she said.

"I'm hoping to show the impact of what happened and what could happen in Winnipeg or any other city that these trains roll through," Penny said.

She can tell you the story for each portrait, too, such as the girls sleeping in the apartment or Gaétan Lafontaine, the young husband who stood outside the bar, saw the fireball and ran back for his wife, only to die with her.

"These damn trains are going through every town and city and if that happened in Winnipeg, it won't be 47 people killed. It would be hundreds," she said.

In addition to the 47 who died the night the runaway train blew up, a rescue worker on the scene later died of his injuries.

The disaster in Quebec's Eastern Townships has acted as a wakeup call to put pressure on the rail industry and governments in Canada and the United States to tighten safety regulations of oil and gas shipments.

But if it's anything like the Welsh tragedy in 1966, Penny is convinced it will be decades before the fallout finally settles.

Another oil train derailed and exploded in New Brunswick in January, forcing the evacuation of 150 people. Nobody was hurt.

Three of the tank cars were loaded at a terminal in southwestern Manitoba, Canadian National Railway Co. said at the time.

In December, a 106-car BNSF Railway Co. oil train collided with a grain train near Casselton, N.D., a town of 2,300 people. About two-thirds of the town, 40 kilometres west of Fargo, was evacuated. Fortunately, nobody was injured in that explosion.

Train shipments of crude pumped in Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest are projected to double to two million barrels a day in the next year, up from a million a day in the first nine months of 2013. U.S. government data show as oil output has surged, so have crude-related train incidents, the Financial Post reported recently.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2014 A10

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