(Reuters) – A driverless freight train carrying tankers of crude oil derailed at high speed and exploded into a giant fireball in the middle of a small Canadian town early yesterday, destroying dozens of buildings and killing at least one person.
The disaster occurred shortly after 1 am (0500 GMT) when the runaway train with 73 cars sped into Lac-Megantic, a picturesque lakeside town of about 6,000 people in the province of Quebec near the border with Maine, and came off the rails. Witnesses said the town centre was crowded at the time.
Four of the cars were set alight and blew up in a huge fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet up into the air. Many of the destroyed buildings were totally flattened.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet told a briefing that at least one person had died. He gave no further details and said he could not say how people many were missing.
The train was transporting crude oil from North Dakota to eastern Canada, likely to New Brunswick, news that is bound to revive questions about the safest way to carry the oil needed to service North America’s economies.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which operated the train, said it had been parked some distance from the town and no one was on board when it derailed.
“We’re not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief … somehow, the train got released,” Montreal, Maine & Atlantic vice president of marketing Joseph R. McGonigle told Reuters.
Fireman said they were spraying cold water on five unexploded tanker cars they said posed a particular danger. Town Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche urged residents to use water sparingly to help the fire services.
The rail tracks pass next to a bar popular with young people. Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he had just left the bar when he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.
“I have never seen a train travelling that quickly into the centre of Lac-Megantic,” he told French-language broadcaster Radio-Canada, saying he watched as the train hurtled around a bend.
“I saw the wagons come off the tracks … everything exploded. In just one minute the center of the town was covered in fire.”
Residents told reporters they had heard five or six large blasts. More than 15 hours after the derailment, one rail car was still burning.
“Many parents are worried because they haven’t been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance,” Roy-Laroche told Radio-Canada.
Police imposed a 1/2-mile (1-km) security zone around the blast and evacuated about 1,000 people from their homes.