LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec – About 40 people were still missing a day after a runaway train derailed in Quebec, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed a busy downtown district and killed five people. Police said a higher death toll was inevitable, and authorities feared the number might soar once they’re able to reach the hardest-hit areas. Worries remained over the status of two oil-filled train cars.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper compared the area to a war zone and said about 30 buildings were incinerated. Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benont Richard said only a small part of the devastated area had been searched Sunday, more than a day since the accident, because firefighters were making sure all fires were out.
The train’s 72 oil-filled tanker cars somehow came loose early Saturday morning, sped downhill nearly 7 miles into the town, derailed and began exploding one by one. At least five exploded.
The eruptions sent residents of Lac-Megantic scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky. The district is a popular area packed with bars that often bustles on summer weekend nights. Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m. local time. Fire then spread to several homes.
Two tanker cars were burning Sunday morning, and authorities were still worried about them Sunday evening. Local Fire Chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters were staying 500 feet from the tankers, which were being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating.
“This is an unbelievable disaster,” said Harper, who toured the town Sunday. “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated.”
The growing number of trains carrying crude oil in Canada had raised concerns of a major derailment.
One death was confirmed Saturday. Police confirmed two people were found dead overnight and confirmed two more deaths Sunday afternoon. The charred remains were sent to Montreal for identification.
A coroner’s spokeswoman said it may not be possible to recover some of the bodies because of the intensity of the blasts.
Witnesses said they feared for the lives of dozens who were at the nearby Musi-Cafe bar on a beautiful summer night in the town of 6,000, about 155 miles east of Montreal and just west of the Maine border.
David Vachon said no one had heard from a friend who had been celebrating a birthday there, or from the man’s wife. “I knew a good portion of them, around 15 who are now missing. … It’s terrible,” he said.
Transportation Safety Board investigator Donald Ross said the black box of the locomotive has been recovered, but officials haven’t been able to access much of the site.
Edward Burkhardt, 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 because the engineer had finished his run. The tanker cars somehow came loose.
Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s vice president of marketing, said the company believes the brakes were the cause.
“Somehow those brakes were released, and that’s what is going to be investigated,” McGonigle said in a telephone interview Sunday.
Lauzon, the fire chief, said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. McGonigle confirmed the fire department showed up after the first engineer tied up and went to a local hotel. Someone later reported a fire.
“We know that one of our employees from our engineering department showed up at the same time to assist the fire department. Exactly what they did is being investigated.” McGonigle said.
The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick.