The center of a Quebec town has been wiped out, according to the mayor, after a runaway freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a fireball at 1am on Saturday.
One person was killed and about 30 buildings were destroyed as the unmanned train exploded. About 60 people are believed to be missing, but the force of the fire has slowed rescue efforts.
Parts of the town were evacuated in the early hours as fireballs shot several metres in the air, flames spread to nearby homes and thick acrid smoke filled the air in Lac-Megantic, which is close to the Maine border and about 250km from Montreal.
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Fireball: A cloud of fire is blasted into the sky above Lac Megantic after a freight train exploded
Explosive: Balls of fire and thick smoke fill the sky above Lac Megantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed
The name of the person killed in the blaze, caused by a runaway Montreal Maine & Atlantic train, has not yet been named.
The train’s conductor, who was in a hotel at the town at the time of the crash, is being questioned by police, according to CTV News.
He had parked the train in Nantes, about 12km away, as he waited for someone to take over his shift, when it somehow ‘got released’, the railway company’s vice-president Joseph McGonigle said.
‘We’re not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief,’ he added.
The train’s engine was found about 1km from where the explosions took place, creating what authorities have described as ‘a war zone’.
About 30 shops and homes in the town center, including the library and local weekly newspaper’s office, were destroyed by the fire, which is being dealt with by firefighters from Quebec and Maine.
‘Words cannot tell the damage that had been done,’ Sergeant Gregory Gomez del Prado, of Quebec Police, said. ‘Many, many buildings have been damaged. It’s a catastrophe for the town of course, but also for the whole province.’
Scorched: Burnt out cars and rubble can be seen as the railway cars continue to burn
Extensive: The damage caused by the runaway train extends over a couple of blocks in the town center
Wiped out: Piles of brick are all that remain of several buildings close to where the rail cars exploded
Witnesses said the blast flattened an apartment building and part of a bar, which had a terrace packed with people at the time of the fire, according to CBC.
Yvon Rosa had just left the bar when he saw the runaway train.
‘I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the center of Lac-Megantic,’ he said. ‘I saw the wagons come off the tracks … everything exploded. In just one minute the center of the town was covered in fire.’
The ferocity of the blaze has made authorities fear for the safety of many of the lakeside town’s 6,000 residents. About 120 firefighters are still trying to contain the fire in the town center.
‘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,’ the town’s mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, said.
‘We’re told some people are missing but they may just be out of town or on vacation,’ Lieutenant Michel Brunet, of Quebec police, said.
A Facebook page has been set up to help friends and family check on their loved ones, according to the Toronto Star.
Devastation: Residents said the explosion looked the the end of the world, as thick smoke and flames filled the sky
Rescue: As the town was evacuated residents watched in horror as the fire spread
About 250 residents have taken shelter in a Red Cross center set up in the town’s high school, and more are expected to arrive there later today.
‘Many parents are worried because they haven’t been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance,’ Ms Roy-Laroche said.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sent his sympathy to the stricken town.
‘Thoughts & prayers are with those impacted in Lac Megantic. Horrible news,’ he said on Twitter.
Flames could be seen from several miles away as the fire spread to several homes after the 73-car Montreal Maine & Atlantic train, which was heading towards Maine, derailed.
Zeph Kee, who lives about half an hour from Lac-Megantic, told CBC: ‘It was total mayhem … people not finding their kids.’
Resident Anne-Julie Hallee, who saw the explosion, said: ‘It was like the end of the world.’
Another resident, Claude Bedard, said: ‘It’s terrible. We’ve never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.’
Still burning: Flames and smoke pour from one of the wagons hours after the derailment
Locator: The Montreal Maine & Atlantic train derailed about 250km from Montreal
Doused: Water is sprayed on to a burning rail car close to the railway track
Rubble: The remains of a building flattened in the blast can be seen through the smoke
Only 1,000 litres of oil on board the train has been recovered, and firefighters said that all of the 73 cars were on fire, according to a press conference held in the town on Saturday afternoon.
A lot of the oil has leaked into a lake and the Chaudiere River, and plumes of thick smoke could be seen from about 10km away, nearly 10 hours after the blast.
A 1km section of the town has been cordoned off and boats have been banned from coming close on the river, after flames were allegedly seen in two aqueducts.
‘We have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air,’ Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said.
‘Firefighters are working hard to extinguish that fire, but it’s burning hard because of the crude oil,’ Gergeant Gomez del Prado said,adding that it would take a while for the fire to be contained.
‘We also have a spill on the lake and the river that is concerning us. We have advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudiere River.’
Firefighters have set up a perimeter around the town as they try to tackle the blaze, which was caused when four of the cars that were pressurized blew up.
Derailment: Smoke is still filling the streets around where the 73-car freight train derailed
Pollution: Environmental workers are monitoring the plumes of smoke, as well as contamination of a river
‘There are still wagons which we think are pressurized. We’re not sure because we can’t get close, so we’re working on the assumption that all the cars were pressurized and could explode. That’s why progress is slow and tough,’ local fire chief Denis Lauzon said.
The cause of the derailment is not yet known. The railway company’s Mr McGonigle, said the middle section of the train had derailed, the Montreal Gazette said.
Investigators are headed to the town to begin gathering information and statements from witnesses.
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