THE centre of a picturesque Canadian town was wiped out yesterday after a driverless freight train carrying hundreds of tonnes of crude oil derailed at high speed, sparking a series of explosions.
At least 60 people were missing, feared dead, after the runaway train with 73 carriages sped into Lac-Mégantic in Quebec before coming off the rails shortly after 1am (5am UK time).
Four of the pressurised-tank carriages caught fire. The subsequent explosions combined into a giant fireball, with flames shooting into the sky and billowing smoke visible from several miles away.
Witnesses said the town centre was crowded at the time. About 6,000 people live in the lakeside town, which is close to the border with Maine and about 155 miles east of Montreal.
About 30 buildings in the town centre were destroyed in the inferno. Residents reported hearing as many as six loud blasts soon after the derailment.
Huge clouds of thick acrid smoke could be seen still rising from the centre of Lac-Mégantic several hours after the disaster.
Fire officials said they feared more of the tanker carriages could explode. One carriage remained on fire almost 12 hours after the derailment.
Authorities set up a half-mile exclusion zone as 120 firefighters battled to control the blaze, forcing the evacuation of 1,000 people.
Worried residents looked on amid fears that friends and loved ones may have died in their homes. Some were unable to reach family or friends by phone, police said. No casualties had been confirmed late last night.
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said: “Many parents are worried because they haven’t been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance.
“We can’t give out any information on what’s happening right now because the firemen haven’t been able to get close.”
He added: “When you see the centre of your town almost destroyed, you’ll understand that we’re asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event.”
Police spokesman Michel Brunet said: “I can say absolutely nothing about victims… we’ve been told about people who are not answering their phones, but you have to understand that there are people who are out of town and on holiday.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took to Twitter to release an initial statement, posting: “Thoughts & prayers are with those impacted in Lac-Mégantic. Horrible news.”
The train was run by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic – a firm that owns roughly 510 miles of track in Maine and Vermont in the United States, and in Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada.
Company vice-president of marketing Joseph McGonigle said no-one had been on board when the train derailed.
He said it was unknown how the train ended up out of control. It had been parked some distance from the town during an overnight driver shift change.
“We’re not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book,” he said.
“He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief. Somehow the train got released.
“There appears to be extensive damage to buildings but we haven’t got a full report yet of injuries. But we understand that there likely are some.”
Eyewitness Yvon Rosa had just left a bar when he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.
“I have never seen a train travelling that quickly into the centre of Lac-Mégantic,” he said.
“I saw the wagons come off the tracks. Everything exploded. In just one minute the centre of the town was covered in fire.”
Lac-Mégantic resident Claude Bedard described the scene as “dreadful”.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.”
Restaurant owner Bernard Demers, who had to evacuate his home after the derailment, said one of the explosions sounded like an atomic bomb detonating.
He said: “It was very hot. Everybody was afraid.”
Some of the train’s cargo spilled into the Chaudière River.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said communities downstream of Lac-Mégantic should be careful of using river water.
He said: “Right now there is big smoke in the air, so we have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air.
“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.”
Firefighters and rescue workers had to be called in from neighbouring municipalities, including Sherbrooke and Saint-Georges, to help deal with the disaster. Officials said they had asked for help from fire services in the United States.
Lac-Mégantic is part of Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, an area popular with tourists that is close to the border with Maine and Vermont. Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province in the eastern half of Canada.