Canadian police yesterday raised the death toll from a runaway freight train explosion in the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic to three and said they expected to find more bodies.
The driverless train derailed and exploded in the early hours of Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings in the center of the town. Police said late on Saturday they had discovered the remains of one victim.
“Three bodies have been found,” police spokesman Michel Brunet told reporters. “People have been reported missing or disappeared but ... we are not going to issue a figure. We know there are going to be more deaths.”
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. However, accidents on this scale are rare.
Four of the cars caught fire and blew up in a fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of meters into the air.
It destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally flattened, including stores, a library and the popular Musi-Cafe music bar, eyewitnesses said.
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.
The blast ruptured a water main, creating a shortage of drinking water, forcing the town to bring in special tankers.
The center 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 said.
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,” Burkhardt said.
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.
Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.
“I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the center 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 center of the town was covered in fire.”
Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts. More than 21 hours after the derailment, one car was still burning and firefighters, some of them from the US, were still spraying cold water from the lake on five unexploded tanker cars they said posed a particular danger.
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 center of your town almost destroyed, you’ll understand that we’re asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event,” a tearful Town 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.