After a runaway train derailed in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, smoke… (Paul Chiasson, Associated…)
A driverless runaway train hauling tankers of crude oil derailed in the center of a small town in Quebec, Canada, early Saturday, igniting massive fireballs and gushing flaming fuel that left at least one person dead and as many as 100 missing, according to residents and local officials.
The accident forced the evacuation of 2,000 people from Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 people about 155 miles east of Montreal and close to the Maine border.
The 73-car train, destined for Maine, had been parked outside the town for a crew change and was left unattended, said Joseph McGonigle, vice president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. For undetermined reasons the train began rolling.
Francois Jacques, owner of the Jacques & Sons funeral home directly in front of the bend where the train left the track, said he heard it roaring toward the town about 1 a.m., "much louder than it should have been." His building was one of scores flattened by the blast or razed by the fire.
A number of bars and restaurants close to the rail line were crowded at the time of the crash because of the mild weather, residents said.
"I lost a close friend," said Luc Gagnon, owner of a commercial painting company, describing how patrons of a nearby bar, the Musi-Cafe, were trapped by at least five huge explosions, "one like an atomic bomb, three times as high as the steeple at St. Agnes," a large church in the town center.
Gagnon said he knew a waitress working outside the cafe who was able to flee for her life but suffered serious burns. Gagnon said she told him she did not see anyone escape from inside.
Many of the businesses along the main street, Rue Frontenac, had apartments above them. The fate of the occupants was unknown.
Claude Perinet, the former town manager, said numerous structures were set ablaze by a "river of fire" flowing down Rue Frontenac and into a large lakeside park one street away.
"At one point, the water [in the lake] was on fire" from the burning oil, Perinet said. Gagnon said that many people ran to the park for safety but then had to jump into the lake "in order to survive; the flames kept coming."
Perinet, now assistant city manager of Sherbrooke, about 65 miles west, said emergency crews from throughout the Eastern Townships region and from Maine had converged on the town. But more than 24 hours after the derailment, fires were still burning. "There is fuel all over, making a danger of explosions," he said, and the hazard made it impossible for authorities to enter the area to search for the missing.
"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," an emotional Mayor Colette Roy Laroche said at a televised news briefing.
Town officials and provincial police had set up Facebook pages for people to check in or to list missing loved ones, and residents set up a center in the schoolyard to assist distraught townsfolk.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his sympathy in a statement.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this morning's tragic train derailment and subsequent fires in Lac-Megantic, Quebec," Harper said.
Provincial environmental workers were monitoring levels of toxic crude oil that may have spilled into the Chaudiere River, which begins at Lac-Megantic. Many communities downstream get their water from the river.
Times wire services were used in compiling this report.