At least 5 killed in Quebec rail accident

Train hauling oil derails, igniting explosions and fires that destroy town's downtown district


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LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec -- About 40 people were still missing a day after a runaway freight train derailed in Quebec, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed a busy downtown district and killed five people.

Police said a higher death toll was inevitable, and authorities feared the number might soar once they're able to reach the hardest-hit areas. Worries remained over the status of two oil-filled train cars.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper compared the area to a war zone and said about 30 buildings were incinerated. Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said only a small part of the devastated area had been searched Sunday, more than a day since the accident, because firefighters were making sure all fires were out.

All but one of the 73 cars were filled with oil, which was being transported from North Dakota's Bakken oil region to a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The eruptions sent residents of Lac-Megantic scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky. The district is 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. Fire then spread to several homes.

Two tanker cars were burning Sunday morning, and authorities were still worried about them Sunday evening. Local Fire Chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters were staying 500 feet from the tankers, which were being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating.

"This is really terrible. Our community is grieving, and it is taking its toll on us," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche 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 about 10 miles west of the Maine border. It is a picturesque lakeside town in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

A coroner's spokeswoman said it may not be possible to recover some of the bodies because of the intensity of the blasts.

The derailment and explosions underscored a debate in the effort to transport North America's oil across long distances: Is it safer and less environmentally destructive to move huge quantities of crude oil by train or by pipeline?

The Bakken oil deposits have become a major source of oil for the railroads to move because they lack direct pipeline links. Canada's oil sands producers, frustrated by a lack of pipeline capacity, are also turning to trains to ship their products.

Residents who gathered outside a community shelter Sunday hugged and wiped tears as they braced for bad news about missing loved ones.

Henri-Paul Audette headed there with hope of reuniting with his missing brother. Mr. Audette, 69, said his brother's apartment was next to the railroad tracks, very close to the spot where the train derailed.

"I haven't heard from him since the accident," he said. "I had thought ... that I would see him."

Another man who came to the shelter said it's difficult to explain the impact this incident has had on life in Lac-Megantic. About a third of the community was forced out of their homes. David Vachon said he has one friend whose sister is missing and another who is still searching for his mother.

The cause of the accident was believed to be a runaway train, the railroads operator said.

Edward Burkhardt, the president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had been parked uphill of Lac-Megantic because the engineer had finished his run.

The company later released a statement that said air brakes used to hold the locomotive in place may have been released after the train was parked.

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