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Lac-Megantic Explosion: Social Media Plays Important Role In Train Tragedy

MONTREAL - Inside a living room almost 200 kilometres from the devastated town of Lac-Megantic, two people have been tirelessly working to help residents of the abruptly uprooted community track down the whereabouts of loved ones.

Upon hearing of Saturday's tragedy Vicky Villeneuve, a Quebec City mother of two, quickly collaborated with a friend, Maxime Gagnon Desbiens, to launch the "Lac-Megantic: Support aux Gens" Facebook page and the additional site

"We tried to make a page that was proactive, where people could go and verify quickly whether or not those they were looking for had been found," Villeneuve said in an interview.

Although Villeneuve doesn't know a soul in Lac-Megantic and has never been there, she wanted to do what she could to help.

The website she and Desbiens created serves as a platform for an entirely crowd-sourced list of missing and found persons.

It allows for members of the community to post and identify those who remain unaccounted for and to provide updates of those who have surfaced.

As of mid-afternoon Sunday, the website had listed 334 people as found and 180 as being sought. The numbers were being frequently updated.

Villeneuve said the reaction from the community has been extremely gratifying. That response spoke, she said, to a demand for information.

"We are giving people the only resource they have right now, because there is no official list from the provincial police or Red Cross available yet,” she said.

"So we've been relying on families and friends in Lac-Megantic, who are collectively building this list and giving us confirmation. It gives them hope."

Villeneuve said she and Desbiens are doing the best they can to verify new information as it emerges, in order to ensure the highest level of accuracy possible.

As of late Sunday afternoon, more than 20,000 people had "liked" the 'Lac-Megantic: Support aux Gens' Facebook page, nearly double the number of "likes" on the provincial police's 'Page d'information: sinistres de Lac-Megantic' page.

Though it exists mostly as a forum aiming to locate missing people, the page's comment section has been flooded with condolences and words of encouragement directed at those dealing with loss, or having to cope with the trying reality of the unknown.

There are gracious well wishes. Unanswered pleas of help from those desperately struggling to find unaccounted for friends and family. And there are also thanks.

While the stories sounded grim in some cases, there were some slivers of hope. One woman posted her gratitude to the page for its help in locating a contact who was able to provide news about her best friend being safe.

"I managed to speak to (her) on the phone and that really reassured me," the woman said.

"Thanks so much for the work you've done."

Gregory Gomez Del Prado is in charge of the provincial police force's social-media presence in the area.

He said he's been trying to direct all people seeking news toward the force's Twitter and Facebook feeds instead of having them seek information scattered across a variety of social media pages that have recently popped up.

Del Prado said social media have provided the police with excellent leads. He noted, however, that all information received was required to go through investigators for verification.

"Its been tremendous," he said. "We've had lots of activity and co-operation.

"The purpose is to help us reach out to the families that we know are stressed and waiting for answers, and this is one way we have to provide them with those.”

Villeneuve said she reached out to the police through Facebook concerning possible collaboration but that she had yet to receive a response.

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