July 7, 2013 5:32 pm

Social media playing important role in Lac-Megantic train tragedy

Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire.

François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images

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

Just after 1 a.m. on Saturday, a runaway train carrying vast quantities of crude oil barrelled into the small town and derailed, sparking explosions and a blaze that scorched more than 30 buildings to the ground.

Early reports came flooding in through the media, citing few people as injured and many feared dead.

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Upon hearing of the tragedy, Vicky Villeneuve, a mother of two, quickly collaborated with a friend, Maxime Gagnon Desbiens, to launch the “Lac-Megantic: Support aux Gens” Facebook page and simultaneously establish http://www.supportlacmegantic.com.

“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 doesnt know a soul in Lac-Megantic and has never been there, she still wanted to do what she could to help.

The website she and Desbiens created serves as a platform for an entirely crowdsourced list of found and missing 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 306 people as found and 183 as being sought.

Quebec provincial police said Sunday that five people had officially been declared dead and that about 40 others were considered missing.

Villeneuve said the reaction from the community in response to her efforts has been extremely gratifying.

“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 says 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, almost 19,000 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: sinstres de Lac-Megantic’ page.

Gregory Gomez Del Prado is in charge of the provincial 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.

© 2013 The Canadian Press

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