A Quebec town devastated when a runaway oil tanker train ignited explosions and fires on Saturday braced yesterday for what authorities assured would be a rising death toll as fire crews tried to reach the hardest hit areas more than two days after the disaster. Five were dead and about 40 people remained missing.
The growing number of trains transporting crude oil in Canada and the US had raised concerns of a major derailment, and this one was sure to add to the debate over a proposed cross-US oil pipeline that Canada says it badly needs.
All but one of the train’s 73 tanker cars were carrying oil when they somehow came loose early Saturday morning, sped downhill nearly 11km into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, derailed and began exploding one by one. At least five blew.
Worries remain over the status of two oil-filled train cars at the scene. They were being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating.
“This is an unbelievable disaster,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who toured the town on Sunday and compared it to a war zone. “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated. There isn’t a family that is not affected by this.”
The downtown bar area had been bustling at the time of the crash. Quebec provincial police Sergeant Benoit Richard said only a small part of the devastated scene had been searched on Sunday as firefighters made sure all flames were out. About a third of the community of 6,000 was forced out of their homes.
Locals were convinced the death toll was far higher than five. Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and about 20 acquaintances remained unaccounted for.
“I have a friend who was smoking outside the bar when it happened, and she barely got away, so we can guess what happened to the people inside,” Huot said. “It’s like a nightmare.”
A coroner’s spokeswoman said it may not be possible to recover some of the bodies because of the intensity of the blasts.
The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries.
The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year.
Harper has called railroad transit “far more environmentally challenging” while trying to persuade US President Barack Obama’s administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Greenpeace Canada on Sunday said that federal safety regulations have not kept up with the enormous growth in the shipment of oil by rail.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s vice president of marketing Joe McGonigle said the firm believes the train’s brakes were the cause.
“The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose,” he said.
Local fire chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive fire on the same train a few hours before the derailment.
Transportation Safety Board investigator Donald Ross said the black box of the locomotive has been recovered, but officials have not been able to access much of the site.