Canadian police have raised their estimate of the death toll from a massive explosion involving a runaway train to five and said they expected to find more bodies in the 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 Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 on the edge of a deep lake, ringed by forests of pine and birch. There was no driver on board.
Last night the operator of the train said that the air brakes used to hold the locomotive in place may have been released after the train was parked.
The train was sitting parked, without a driver, outside town, when it began to roll downhill, gathered speed and derailed on a curve early on Saturday.
The statement from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway did not make clear how the brakes had been disengaged, or who could be responsible.
The company statement said: “One fact that has emerged is the locomotive of the [parked] oil train … was shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place.”
The train had five locomotives and 72 tanker wagons, each carrying 30,000 gallons of crude. Four caught fire and exploded.
The blast produced a fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and destroyed dozens of buildings in the centre of the town.
“Five bodies have been found,” police spokesman Michel Brunet said yesterday. “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.”
Mr Brunet added: “The five bodies found were so charred they have been sent to Montreal for identification.”
An unofficial list drawn up by residents and posted on the internet showed about 40 people were still unaccounted for.
The gigantic blast flattened dozens of buildings, including a music bar popular with young people.
Last night Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said that the part of Lac-Megantic impacted by the massive crude oil explosion looked like a “war zone”.
He added: “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated.
“There isn’t a family that is not affected by this.”
Resident René Bolduc, who lived within a few hundred metres of the site said “I was sleeping when it happened, There was a boom and the inside of my house turned red with the colour of the flames.”
Mr Bolduc said he saw people running as the flames towered overhead. “It felt like the hairs on my arms and face were burning off,” he said.
Lac-Megantic is in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, about 160 miles east of Montreal, close to the border with Maine and Vermont. The railway line is owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which said the engineer had secured the train for the night and left.