LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec – Fires continued burning late Saturday, nearly 24 hours after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in eastern Quebec, sparking explosions and a blaze that destroyed the center of a town and killed one person. Police expect the death toll to increase.
Witnesses said the eruptions sent residents scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky. Many locals in Lac-Megantic were shaken out of their slumber after the area shook from blasts and shot flames higher than the steeple of a nearby church.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 people were forced from their homes in the lakeside town of 6,000 people, which is about 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of the Maine border.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet confirmed that one person had died. He refused to say how many others might be dead, but said authorities have been told “many” people have been reported missing.
Lt. Guy Lapointe, a spokesman with Quebec provincial police, said: “I don’t want to get into numbers; what I will say is we do expect we’ll have other people who will be found deceased, unfortunately.”
The derailment caused several tanker rail cars to explode in the downtown, a popular area known for its bars that often bustles on summer weekend nights.
Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m. local time. The fire then spread to several homes.
Flames and billowing black smoke could still be seen long after the 73-car train derailed.
“When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you’ll understand that we’re asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event,” an emotional Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing.
The cause of the accident was believed to be a runaway train, the railway’s operator said.
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had been parked uphill of Lac-Megantic.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” said Edward Burkhardt. “But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad. “Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
The multiple blasts came over a span of several hours as the fire tore through the center of town, destroying at least 30 buildings. Lines of tall trees in the area looked like giant standing matchsticks, blackened from bottom to tip.