LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec — A runaway, driverless, 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed Saturday in eastern Quebec, sparking several explosions and a blaze that destroyed the center of the town of Lac-Mégantic and killed at least one person. An unspecified number of people were reported missing; local media reported that as many as 60 residents were not accounted for.
The explosions also forced more than 1,000 people to flee the town of 6,000 about 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of the Maine border early Saturday as towering fireballs filled the sky.
Bernard Demers, who owns a restaurant near the site of the explosion, told The Canadian Press news agency that the blast was “like an atomic bomb,” adding that the heat from the fire was noticeable as he fled.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet confirmed that one person had died.
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Brunet refused to say how many others might be dead, but said authorities have been told “many” people had been reported missing.
The derailment caused several tanker rail cars to explode in the downtown core, a popular area known for its bars that is often bustling on summer weekend nights.
Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m.
The fire spread to a number of homes in the lakeside town, and witnesses said the flames shot up higher than the steeple on a nearby church.
Flames and billowing black smoke could be seen more than 12 hours after the derailment.
“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.
The cause of the derailment was not immediately known.
Dozens of residents gathered hours after the explosion at the edge of a wide security perimeter and many feared the worst.
About a mile down the town’s main street, flames danced around a railway tanker that sat at the edge of the road.
Charles Coue said he and his wife felt the heat as they sprinted from their home after an explosion went off a couple of hundred yards away.
“It went boom and it came like a fireball,” he said.
Another resident, Claude Bedard, described the scene of the explosions as “dreadful.”
“The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone,” he said.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said a large but undetermined amount of fuel had also spilled into the Chaudière River.
Blanchette said the 73 cars were filled with crude oil, and at least four were damaged by the explosions and fire.
“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 Chaudière River.”
He added that a mobile laboratory had been set up to monitor the quality of the air.
Firefighters and rescue workers from several neighboring municipalities were called in to help deal with the disaster.
Firefighters from northern Maine were also deployed to the Quebec town, according to a spokesman at the sheriff’s office in Franklin County.
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-Mégantic, Quebec,”
The train, reportedly heading toward Maine, belongs to Montreal Maine & Atlantic. According to the railroad’s website, the company owns more than 500 miles of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The police said that it was too early to determine the cause of the calamity.
Joseph McGonigle, a spokesman for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway told The Gazette, a Montreal newspaper, that before the explosion, an engineer had parked the train near the town for the night, secured its brakes and checked into a hotel in Lac-Mégantic.
McGonigle said it appeared that the freight cars became detached from the train’s locomotives and rolled into the town before derailing and exploding.
“There are many fail-safe modes,” he told the newspaper. “How this happened is just beyond us.”
Last week, a train carrying petroleum products derailed in Calgary, Alberta, when a flood-damaged bridge sagged toward the still-swollen Bow River. The derailed rail cars were removed without spilling their cargo.
The Quebec accident is likely to have an impact across the border.
In Maine, environmentalists and state officials have previously raised concerns about the threat of an accident and a spill from railroad tank cars carrying crude oil across the state.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway carried nearly 3 million barrels of oil across Maine last year. Each tank car holds some 30,000 gallons of oil.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has begun developing protection plans for the areas where the trains travel, spokeswoman Samantha Warren said recently.
Material from MarketWatch is included in this report.