Forty missing after runaway train blast in Canada
Explosion destroys centre of small town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec
A view of the town from a lookout point at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, yesterday. A driverless freight train carrying tankers of petroleum products derailed at high speed and exploded into a giant fireball in the middle of the small Canadian town early on Saturday, killing at least five people and leaving scores missing. Photograph: Reuters
At least five people died and 40 were missing yesterday after a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded and destroyed the centre of a small Canadian town in a disaster that raises fresh questions about moving oil by rail.
The train had been hauling crude oil from North Dakota to eastern Canada, and was parked, without a driver, outside the town of Lac-Megantic when it began rolling downhill, gathering speed and derailing on a curve.
Each tanker carried 113,000 litres (30,000 gallons) of crude oil.
Four cars caught fire and exploded in a huge orange-and-black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet and flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.
Prime minister Stephen Harper compared the area to a war zone and said about 30 buildings were incinerated
Mr Harper has called railway transport “far more environmentally challenging” while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Police said they were investigating the disaster, and would talk to everyone involved.
“Every time the Surete [Quebec police] needs to investigate, we need to rule out any foul play,” spokesman Benoit Richard told reporters. “Right now we cannot say it is a criminal act. We can only say we are looking at it as if it was.”
Shipping oil on rail cars has skyrocketed in the past year as crude producers seek alternatives to pipelines that are already full. Previous accidents led to messy spills rather than life-threatening explosions.
Very few injured people were treated in hospitals, indicating those caught in the blast had either escaped or died. “It is a black-and-white situation,” Quebec health minister Rejean Hebert told reporters.
It is not clear why the train began rolling down toward the town, or why the crude oil, not normally considered highly explosive, blew up. The rail line is owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which said the engineer had secured the train for the night and left.
“That’s the first thing I would think of: did someone release all the brakes?” asked Guy Landrio, a Warren, Pennsylvania, railroad consultant with 37 years of industry experience. “In my experience, a train doesn’t just simply let itself go down the hill into a town. There’s usually a cause behind it.”
Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of Rail World, 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 carriages somehow came loose. “We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” Mr Burkhardt said.
“Well, I think we’ve blown it here.” Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s vice president of marketing, said the company believed the brakes were the cause. “Somehow those brakes were released, and that’s what is going to be investigated,” Mr McGonigle said. “We’re pretty comfortable saying it is the brakes. The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose.”
Genevieve Guilbault, spokeswoman for the coroner’s office, said the dead were burned beyond recognition and that DNA and dental records would be needed for identification.
“Given the size and intensity of the blast, you can imagine the condition of the bodies,” she said.
White vapour still rose yesterday from the town centre, which police have cordoned off.
Residents said they were particularly concerned about those inside the Musi-Cafe bar, next to the centre of the blast.
Yvon Rosa said he and a friend had just left the Musi-Cafe when they saw the train hurtling toward them. As the town centre exploded, they ran to the lake, jumped in a boat and went out on to the water until morning. “It was incredible. The smoke, the heat – fire everywhere. There were people running . . . It was like the apocalypse.”
About 2,000 of the town’s inhabitants were evacuated after the blast, scores to a school transformed into a shelter.
Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 on the edge of a deep lake and ringed by forests , is in the French-speaking province of Quebec, about 255km (160 miles) east of Montreal and close to the border with Maine and Vermont.
Sixty-two people died in a plane crash in Chilliwack, British Columbia, in December 1956.