July 8, 2013

Dozens feared dead in inferno after train crash

A runaway train of oil tanker cars derails and ignites in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, less than 10 miles from the Maine border.

From staff and news services

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.

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The downtown core lies in ruins as firefighters continue to water smoldering rubble Sunday in Lac Megantic, Quebec, after a train derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil.

AP

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Burnt buildings are seen Sunday following a train derailment causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Two more bodies were discovered overnight after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in eastern Quebec, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed a town's downtown center. The confirmed death toll is now three, and is expected to rise further.

AP

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Map: Lac-Megantic, Quebec

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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