LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — The death toll rose to five Sunday in the derailment of a runaway train that ignited explosions and fires in eastern Quebec, destroying the center of this town near the Maine border.
An estimated 40 additional people were still missing as of Sunday evening, and many of them are likely dead, Canadian authorities said.
Fires prevented rescuers from reaching part of the 73-car train, which was carrying crude oil, and billowing black smoke could still be seen Sunday evening.
Sgt. Benoit Richard of the Quebec provincial police said late Sunday that crews would not conduct any additional searches for bodies until Monday morning.
The derailment and explosions early Saturday morning sent residents of Lac-Megantic, 10 miles west of the Maine border, scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs.
Local Fire Chief Denis Lauzon likened the charred scene to “a war zone.” Emergency crews could not reach a 2-square-kilometer section of the town out of concern that some tanker cars still could explode.
“We know there will be more deaths,” police Lt. Michel Brunet said.
Two of the five cars that exploded were still on fire 36 hours later, Lauzon said. He said crews are staying 500 feet from the burning tankers, which are being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating and exploding.
“It’s a mess,” he said.
The multiple blasts came over a span of several hours in the town of 6,000, which is about 155 miles east of Montreal and 185 miles north of Portland.
About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars laden with oil caught fire in the picturesque lakeside town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
The derailment caused several tanker railcars to explode in the downtown district, a popular area packed with bars that often bustles on summer weekend nights. Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday local time. The fire then spread to several homes.
The cause of the accident was believed to be a runaway train, the railway’s Maine-based operator said. Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of Rail World Inc. – the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., based in Hermon, Maine – said the train had been parked uphill of Lac-Megantic. The tanker cars then sped downhill into the town before derailing.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” Burkhardt said. “But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad. “Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s vice president of marketing, said the company believes the brakes were the cause. He said the rail company has been in touch with Canada’s Transportation Safety Board.
“Somehow those brakes were released and that’s what is going to be investigated,” McGonigle said in a telephone interview Sunday. “We’re pretty comfortable saying it is the brakes. The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose.”
On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town where a large part of the downtown area has been leveled.
“This is an unbelievable disaster,” Harper said. “This is a very big disaster in human terms as the extent of this becomes increasingly obvious.”
Lines of tall trees in the area looked like giant standing matchsticks, blackened from bottom to tip. Witnesses said the eruptions shook residents out of their slumber and sent them darting through the streets.
Patrons gathered at a nearby bar were sent running for their lives after the thunderous crash and wall of fire blazed through the early morning sky.
Bernard Theberge, who was outside on the bar’s patio at the time of the crash, said he feared for the safety of those inside the popular Musi-Cafe when the first explosion went off.
“People started running and the fire ignited almost instantaneously,” he said.
“It was like a movie,” said Theberge, who considered himself fortunate to escape with only second-degree burns on his right arm. “Explosions as if it were scripted — but this was live.”
Firefighters and rescue workers from several municipalities, including Sherbrooke and Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, were called in to help deal with the disaster. Firefighters from Franklin County in Maine were also deployed to the Quebec town.
According to the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway website, the company owns more than 500 miles of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The train that derailed Saturday was headed to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, after passing through Maine.
The Montreal, Maine and 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 had previously begun developing protection plans for areas in the state through which the oil trains travel.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement Sunday on the catastrophe in Quebec.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragedy and the community of Lac-Megantic,” he said. “In times of need like this, Maine stands ready to support our neighbors to the North.
“Many Maine firefighters have assisted and will continue to offer resources to the citizens of Lac-Megantic,” the governor said.
The Associated Press and staff writers J. Craig Anderson and Eric Russell contributed to this report.