Canadian police on Sunday raised the death toll from a massive explosion involving a runaway freight train to five with another 40 people still missing in the still-smoking wreckage of a small Quebec town.
The train, which had been hauling crude oil from North Dakota to eastern Canada, derailed and blew up early on Saturday in the middle of Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 on the edge of a deep blue lake and ringed by forests of pine and birch. There was no driver on board.
It is not clear why the train began rolling down toward the town, or why the crude oil blew up. The rail line is owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which said the engineer had secured the train for the night and left.
The train had five locomotives and 72 tanker cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons (113,000 liters) of crude oil. Four caught fire and exploded.
The blast at about 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday produced a huge orange and black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and destroyed dozens of buildings in the center of the town, including a bar popular with young people.
“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.”
Police said late on Saturday they had discovered the remains of one victim.
Maurice Bernier, an official who works for the county, declined to give the number of missing but said the final death toll would climb.
“It is a catastrophe,” he told Reuters.
An unofficial list drawn up by residents and posted on the Internet showed about 40 people were still unaccounted for.
Scores of people gathered at a school that was being used as a makeshift shelter. Outside, Louise Boulet, 65, looked at a local newspaper that had published an aerial view of the explosion scene. One of the flattened buildings was the house where her 63-year old sister, Marie-France Boulet, lived.
“She is dead for sure. If she were alive, her car would not still be there,” she said, pointing to a burned out vehicle in the photo.
Marie-France ran a women’s clothing shop from the front of the building where she lived by herself.
“She was my best friend,” Louise Boulet said as tears welled in her eyes. “She died with all of my secrets and I will guard all of hers.”
About 2,000 of the town’s inhabitants were evacuated after the blast.
“IT WAS LIKE THE APOCALYPSE”
Residents said they were particularly concerned about people who had been inside the Musi-Cafe bar, which was right next to the center of the blast.
Yvon Rosa said he and a friend had just left the bar when they saw the train hurtling toward them. As the town center exploded, they ran to the lake, jumped in a boat and went out onto the water until morning.
“It was incredible. The smoke, the heat – fire everywhere. There were people running… It was like the apocalypse,” he told Reuters.
Lac-Megantic is in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, about 160 miles (255 km) east of Montreal close to the border with Maine and Vermont.
Two tankers were still burning on Sunday. About 150 firefighters, some from the United States, spent most of Saturday spraying cold water from the lake on five tanker cars they said still posed a serious risk of exploding.
Fire officials said on Sunday they had contained the risk somewhat, and only two tankers were still considered at risk of blowing up.
White vapor still rose from the town center, which police have cordoned off. Photos released by the authorities showed shattered buildings, burning piles of rubble and stumps of burned trees.
Crude oil shipments by rail in North America are rising steadily as pipelines fill to capacity and more and more oil is produced in western regions like Alberta and North Dakota.
There have been a number of high-profile derailments of trains carrying petroleum products in Canada recently, including one in Calgary, Alberta, last month when a flood-damaged bridge sagged toward the still-swollen Bow River. The derailed rail cars were removed without spilling their cargo.
The disaster will focus attention on the merits of TransCanada Corp’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the Texas coast, a project U.S. President Barack Obama is considering whether to approve.
Proponents of Keystone XL, which environmentalists strongly oppose on the grounds that extracting crude from the tar sands generates more greenhouse gas emissions than regular drilling, say shipping oil by pipeline is safer than using rail cars.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic owns some 510 miles (820 km) of track in Maine and Vermont in the United States and in Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada.