At least five dead as runaway freight train explodes in Canada

About 40 missing after train carrying tankers of oil derails and explodes in a small town

Firefighters look at a train wagon on fire at Lac Megantic, Quebec. Canadian police expect the death toll from a fatal fuel train blast in a small Quebec town to rise. Photograph: Reuters

Firefighters look at a train wagon on fire at Lac Megantic, Quebec. Canadian police expect the death toll from a fatal fuel train blast in a small Quebec town to rise. Photograph: Reuters

 

The death toll from the explosion of a runaway freight train in a small Quebec town rose to five and another 40 people are missing, police said today.

A fast-moving, driverless train hauling tankers of crude oil derailed and exploded into a sky-high fireball in the middle of a small Canadian town early on Saturday.

.“Two more people have been recovered, two more bodies, which brings the total to five ... there are about 40 people, more or less, who are considered to be missing,” police spokesman Michel Brunet told reporters.

The disaster took place soon after 5am (Irish time) when the runaway freight train with 72 cars and five locomotives hurtled into Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town of about 6,000 in the province of Quebec, and left the tracks.

Crude oil shipments by rail have become increasingly popular in North America as pipelines fill to capacity and more and more oil is produced in western regions like Alberta and North Dakota. But accidents on this scale are rare.

Four of the cars - which each carried 30,000 gallons of North Dakotan crude oil - caught fire and blew up in a fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet into the air.

It destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally flattened, included stores, a library and the Musi-Cafe music bar, eyewitnesses said. The town centre was crowded with weekend partygoers at the time.

Mr Lapointe said it was hard to calculate the number of possible victims because the area was still too dangerous for police to examine properly. Some people had been reported missing more than once, and some were nowhere near the town.

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The blast ruptured a water main, creating a shortage of drinking water, forcing the town to bring in special tankers.

The centre of town remained blocked off, but from the air, it was clear that many buildings had been reduced to little more than piles of bricks and wood. Residents’ photos showed the burnt out hulks of cars next to smashed houses.

After the blast, burning crude spilled into the storm sewers and rose up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire, the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.

Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said an engineer had parked the train some distance from the town a few hours before the disaster.

“He claims he set the brakes on all five of the engines. He also claims he set the brakes on a sufficient number of cars on the train,” he said in an interview.

Officials said they had few reports of injured victims, suggesting that people caught up in the blast either died on the spot or managed to escape. One woman told Radio-Canada that she had been unable to contact around 15 of her friends.

Stunned town residents cried in the streets as the impact of the blast sank in. Some hugged each other for comfort.

The rail tracks pass next to the Musi-Cafe, which is popular with young people. Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he had just left when he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.

“I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the centre of Lac-Megantic,” he told Radio-Canada, saying he watched as the train careened around a bend. “I saw the wagons come off the tracks ... everything exploded. In just one minute the centre of the town was covered in fire.”

Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts.

Police imposed a 1km security zone around the blast and evacuated a total of about 2,000 people from their homes.

“When you see the centre of your town almost destroyed, you’ll understand that we’re asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event,” a tearful mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing earlier in the day.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, which probes all accidents, said it was looking for the train’s “black box” data recorder.

Lac-Megantic is part of Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, an area popular with tourists that borders both Maine and Vermont. Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province in the eastern half of Canada.

Reuters