Dozens still missing in town devastated by Canadian train explosion

Canadian police say they expect to find many more bodies after a runaway oil-laden cargo train derailed and exploded in a small town in Quebec.

The train, with more than 70 cars, exploded after it jumped its track in the small town of Lac-Megantic yesterday.

Five people have been confirmed dead and at least 40 remain missing, with ongoing fires hampering efforts to conduct a full search of the charred wreckage.

Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris on Sunday, more than 24 hours after the spectacular crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night.

The explosion levelled whole blocks in the centre of the town and destroyed at least 30 buildings.

Popular bars near the blast site were said to be crowded at the time of the accident.

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has visited the devastated town, and says it looks like a warzone.

“A large part of the downtown has been destroyed,” he said.

“It is really just terrible. There has been loss of life as we all know and there are still many, many people missing, so there are many people here who are very worried. People are very concerned about what’s happened here. The community here is in everybody’s thought and prayers.”

“It’s a mess,” Lac-Megantic fire chief Denis Lauzon said.

“We lost great buildings, the historical buildings that we had in Lac-Megantic have disappeared.”

Benoit Richard of the Quebec police force said the bodies which had been recovered had been taken to Montreal for forensic examination.

“All during the night we had a lot of investigators here on the scene to meet with people that might have seen anything that occurred during the fire,” he said.

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Photo: Huge clouds of thick black smoke were still rising from the centre of Lac-Megantic several hours after the disaster. (AFP: Surete du Quebec)
Photo: Huge clouds of thick black smoke were still rising from the centre of Lac-Megantic several hours after the disaster. (AFP: Surete du Quebec)

Sunday 7th July

‘Wall of fire’ engulfed town. 

Investigations are underway into the cause of the accident, which forced 2,000 people from their homes.

Officials say four tanker cars blew up after the runaway train, which had 73 cars filled with petroleum products, came off the rails shortly after 1:00am (local time).

It is believed the cars somehow uncoupled from the engine, gathering speed over seven kilometres before slamming into the town, a picturesque hamlet of 6,000 residents in a corner of the Appalachia mountains near the border with the US state of Maine.

The train left Montreal, 250 kilometres to the west, and was heading to the port of St John on Canada’s Atlantic coast.

Shocked by the force of the accident, residents pressed against police barricades on Sunday seeking even the smallest detail that could help them cope with the disaster.

Returning from an evening of playing bingo in a town just north of Lac-Megantic, Antoinette Paree, 78, remembered seeing “a glimmer, a sort of fire” on the train as it made its way through the night.

Ms Paree arrived home and was looking out from her window, which overlooks the track, when she said she heard “a loud bang – it lit up the whole house”.

Another resident, Mariette Savoie, feared the death toll from the “wall of fire” that engulfed her town will be high.

“Above all the Main Street shops, were homes,” she said.

“All those people who were there were unable to get out.”

A spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, told the AFP news agency that the train had been stopped in the neighbouring town of Nantes, around 13 km west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.

For an unknown reason, Mr Journet said, the train “started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic,” even though the brakes were engaged.

As a result, “there was no conductor on board” when the train crashed, he said.