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Jul31WedIn the devastated town, The Salvation Army's canteen offers respite to tired emergency workers. July 31, 2013 by Lt-Colonel Jim Champ
The chime on my alarm sounds at 4:45 a.m., signaling that it's time to get up and get moving. My 7 a.m. flight from Toronto to Lac-Mégantic, Que., necessitates an early start. Later in the day I learn that the lieutenants serving on the front line at the site of the Quebec train disaster also crawled out of bed at that time for what had become their daily routine for the past two weeks.
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The Quebec divisional commander, Major Brian Venables, is on hand to meet me at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport, and together we set out on the three-hour car journey to the quaint and picturesque town of Lac-Mégantic, now scarred by the tragic events of July 6. En route we stop to pick up several boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts donated to The Salvation Army in support of feeding the hungry emergency disaster services (EDS) workers who number between 100 and 150 every day.
We arrive in Lac-Mégantic shortly after 11:30 a.m. and life appears normal until we approach the heart of the town. The detour around the town centre, coupled with the 3.5-metre-high temporary fence, foreshadows the desolation of the “red zone,” which is blocked from view. We stop at the first of several police checkpoints and await the badges that will gain us access into the area where the Army canteen is set up. A quick phone call to the lieutenants in charge and we are cleared to enter. Every 100 metres, it seems, there are police vehicles. Large cranes and other heavy machinery move across a landscape dotted with burnt-out oil tanks. The rail cars are being placed toward the periphery of the red zone for eventual removal to their final destination.
Lieutenants Anne-Marie and Claude Dagenais greet us warmly as we arrive. We are parked in the town hall's parking lot in a protected area behind the municipal office building. Many trucks, cars and trailers occupy the space, including The Salvation Army's mobile canteen and an open tented area that has seating for approximately 100 people. It is lunchtime and the menu today features hot chicken sandwiches, peas, gravy and french fries. The donuts are added to an array of various fruits and other dessert items.
There is little time for conversation as many of the firefighters are arriving for lunch. The divisional commander and I don surgical gloves and form part of the assembly line in the narrow galley-like kitchen to dish up the 100 or more meals required for this occasion. There is little doubt who is in charge. This is Anne-Marie's kitchen and she quickly has us organized and serving the workers in fine fashion.
Prior to entering the College for Officer Training, Anne-Marie was in charge of a food catering business. She knows her stuff and what it takes to get the job done. Not only does she prepare the meals, but Anne-Marie is often fielding phone calls, organizing volunteers, responding to offers of foodstuffs from donors and doing what perhaps she enjoys best: talking to the workers. There is a joie de vivre that is unmistakable to all who cross her path. A ready smile, friendly banter and a personalized touch have infused a spirit of calm and joy in the midst of dire and dangerous circumstances. The week before our visit, temperatures at the work site reached in excess of 50 C.
More than 100 firefighters, ambulance crew members, town officials and other workers drop by for today's meal. By 1:30 p.m., everyone is fed and cheered up by the lunch break. “Every day the menu is different,” Anne-Marie tells me. “And yet, I do not know from one day to the next, what I will be serving.” Why? Because all of the food is donated and somehow, like the manna of the Old Testament, it just arrives. More than two weeks on the go and the food keeps coming!
As the kitchen crew sits down for a quick lunch, we have time to talk about the Army's involvement in the disaster relief effort. There is much to learn and time is at a premium today. Claude has a meeting in Magog, a small town near Sherbrooke, Que., where he and Anne-Marie serve as corps officers. The Canada summer games will begin in early August in their area and they have responsibilities. Anne-Marie has phone calls to make before starting to prepare the supper meal.
Time is up and I offer prayer for my officer colleagues. As we make our way to the car and begin our drive back to Montreal, I take a photo of a sign on the side of the canteen. It says, “On t'aime beaucoup Anne-Marie!”--an expression posted by the EDS workers of the deep-felt appreciation and affection for this remarkable lady of God.