The official death toll rose to five and could keep climbing after a runaway freight train derailed and exploded its crude oil cargo in the middle of small Quebec town, police said Sunday.
Quebec police Lieutenant Michel Brunet said at a broadcast press conference that about 40 people had been reported missing by family members, but he cautioned that the “figure can change in either direction, either up or down.” A day after the accident, officials said some zones at the scene in Lac-Megantic were still too hot for investigators to enter. Three of the five oil tankers that were burning had been extinguished with foam, while another two were still on fire and at risk of explosion, CBC broadcaster reported.
The Quebec province coroner’s office was setting up a structure to handle multiple deaths, said Genevieve Guilbault of that office. She said identification of bodies could be difficult, “given the intensity of the fire.” About 1,000 people were forced from their homes in the town of 6,000 people 250 km east of Montreal.
The 73-car train had been parked uphill from Lac-Megantic late Friday night, and no crew was on board as it hurled toward the lakeside town, officials with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway have confirmed.
It derailed and exploded in the town centre about 1:15 am (0515 GMT) Saturday. The inferno caught dozens of people enjoying a summer night in downtown bars and on restaurant terraces.
The blast levelled more than four blocks of the town’s downtown area, which Brunet said has been declared a crime scene.
According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, fire had broken out on the train about 11:30 pm Friday when it stopped in Nantes, about 12 km north-west of Lac-Megantic. Nantes fire chief Patrick Lambert told the newspaper that fire-fighters believed the fire had been extinguished by midnight.
It was not clear what role that fire may have had in the later explosions.
The pilot had left the train in Nantes for a hotel, with a replacement crew expected to take over later in the night. Rail officials said they thought the brakes had been properly applied, according to broadcaster CBC Montreal.
“This is really terrible, our community is grieving and it’s taking its toll on us,” mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said at a press conference broadcast by CBC Montreal.