Clouds of dense smoke billow into the night sky as a fire rages on, casting an eerie orange glow over a street lined with trees and buildings. For a split second, the shaky video footage shows what appears to be a train car, back lit by the flames.
The apocalyptic scene in the video depicts the quaint lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec on July 6, 2013, where an unmanned runaway train carrying millions of gallons of crude oil derailed, its contents igniting a blaze that would go on to claim 47 lives and destroy more than half the downtown area.
But recently, much to the dismay of Lac-Mégantic officials and residents, the real footage of a tragedy considered to be one of Canada’s deadliest rail disasters has surfaced in an unexpected place: fictional Netflix original content.
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin told the Canadian Press this week that there are at least two instances in which the popular streaming platform used images of the derailment "as fiction and entertainment.”
“We find that it’s really a lack of respect,” Morin said Tuesday. “It’s hard enough for our citizens to see these images when they are used normally and respectfully on the news. Just imagine, to have them used as fiction, as if they were invented.”
In an episode of the most recent season of Netflix’s science-fiction series “Travelers,” the incident’s fiery aftermath can be seen as part of a newscast about a nuclear bomb going off in London. Though the images only appeared for a few seconds, they still caught the attention of Guillaume Bouchard, the Canadian Press reported.
“I said to myself, ‘It can’t be. They couldn’t have done that,’ ” Bouchard, a high school ethics teacher, told Radio-Canada.
On Monday, Peacock Alley Entertainment, the Toronto-based production company behind the series, issued an apology, adding that they would be “replacing the footage in the show.”
“We sincerely apologize and had no intention to dishonour the tragic events of 2013,” Carrie Mudd, president of Peacock Alley Entertainment, said in a statement sent to The Washington Post via a Netflix representative. Mudd noted that the video clip in the episode was acquired from a stock footage vendor and the company wasn’t “aware of its specific source.”
Though Morin praised the production company’s swift reaction, she accused Netflix on Tuesday of using the real video again, this time in its newly released thriller “Bird Box,” starring Sandra Bullock, the Canadian Press reported.
Early on in the film, Bullock’s character, Malorie, flips through various news channels reporting on a frightening wave of “unexplained mass suicides” sweeping across parts of the world. The news reports contain several scenes of doomsday mayhem, including one that bears a striking resemblance to the Lac-Mégantic video shown in the “Travelers” episode. The footage, which also plays for only a couple of seconds, shows another darkened street, silhouetted against the backdrop of a blazing fire.
“We see the images [of Lac-Mégantic] clearly,” said Morin, who viewed photos of the “Bird Box” scene posted to social media by one of the town’s citizens, the Canadian Press reported.
Netflix did not immediately respond to The Post regarding the “Bird Box" claims.
It is a common practice in TV production to license footage from stock libraries portraying what could be interpreted as news events, and Morin urged Netflix to review its offerings to ensure that video of the disaster does not appear elsewhere on the platform.
“I don’t know if this is happening all the time, but we are looking for assurances from Netflix that … they are going to remove them,” Morin told the Canadian Press. “You can be sure we are going to follow up on this, and our citizens are on our side.”
Robert Bellefleur, a spokesman for a coalition of citizens advocating for rail safety in Lac-Mégantic, echoed Morin’s concerns, telling Radio-Canada that he found the use of the footage “troubling.”
“It brings us back to the pain,” Bellefleur said.
At about 1:15 a.m. local time, roughly five and a half years ago, life for the residents of Lac-Mégantic changed forever.
Just 18 minutes earlier, a train with more than 70 cars carrying crude oil had broken loose and started hurtling downhill toward the small town, the Associated Press reported at the time. The train — operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway — was traveling at 63 mph when it derailed, spilling more than 1.5 million gallons of oil and engulfing the town’s center and dozens of unsuspecting residents in a raging inferno, according to the AP.
While the deadly incident was initially blamed on an engineer who was accused of not setting the train’s brakes properly, an investigation conducted by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded in 2014 that the railroad company’s “weak safety culture” led to the derailment, The Post’s Ashley Halsey III reported. That same year, three employees of the company were charged with criminal negligence causing death, the BBC reported. All three men were acquitted in 2018, according to the BBC.
As of early Wednesday, the episode of “Travelers” containing the footage was still available on Netflix.
“I don’t know anyone who died in Lac-Mégantic,” Bouchard told Radio-Canada. “But if I was someone who lost someone close, and I was home and I saw this, I don’t know how I would react. It wouldn’t be good.”
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