LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec – As firefighters doused still burning oil tanker cars, more bodies were recovered Sunday in this devastated town in eastern Quebec, raising the death toll to five after a runaway train derailed, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed the downtown district.
With dozens of people reported missing, authorities feared they could find more bodies when they reached the hardest-hit areas.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said Sunday that about 40 people have been reported missing, but cautioned that the number could fluctuate up or down.
We met many people who had reported family members missing. Right now I can tell you about 40, Brunet said.
Brunet confirmed two more deaths early Sunday afternoon after confirming two people were found dead overnight. One death was confirmed Saturday.
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 early Saturday morning 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.
Local Fire Chief Denis Lauzon likened the charred scene to a war zone.
This is really terrible. Our community is grieving and it is taking its toll on us, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said.
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.
Harper said the whole country is worried about the missing and is praying for the town.
This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated, Harper said. There isn’t a family that is not affected by this.
The search for victims in the charred debris was hampered because two tanker cars were still burning Sunday morning, sparking fears of more potentially fatal blasts.
Lauzon said firefighters are staying 500 feet from the burning tankers, which are being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating.
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.
The derailment caused at least five tanker cars 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. local time. The fire then spread to several homes.
Brunet said he couldn’t say where the bodies were found exactly because the families have not been notified. Many feared for the lives of those who were at the Musi-Cafe bar where dozens of people were enjoying themselves.
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 tanker cars somehow came loose and sped downhill nearly seven miles into the town before derailing.
We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years, Burkhardt said of the decade-old railroad. Well, I think we’ve blown it here.