LAC MEGANTIC, Canada / Quebec (AFP) – Canadian officials said they found five bodies as they searched for victims of a giant blaze caused by the crash of a runaway train transporting crude oil, and fear they could find as many as 40 more.
Firemen in this picturesque Quebec lakeside town finally managed to put out a raging inferno sparked when the driver-less freight train derailed, crashed into town and exploded early Saturday, sending fireballs skyward and unleashing a wall of fire that tore through homes and businesses.
“The flames, the fires all have been put out now. We did it,” Fire Chief Denis Lauzon told a press briefing.
That meant police finally would be able to conduct a full search of the charred wreckage at the disaster scene.
However a mid-level explosion was heard around 10:00pm. Police said they did not know the cause of that blast.
The fire decimated a downtown portion of Lac-Megantic, population 6,000, and forced about 2,000 residents to flee their homes. The town is located 155 miles east of Montreal, near the U.S. border.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet said after finding one body on Saturday and four on Sunday, they anticipate “many more” fatalities. The official figure for missing people is 40, he said.
One firefighter said on condition of anonymity that there had been at least 50 people in one bar that was consumed by the flames.
“There is nothing left,” he said.
The explosion completely leveled more than four blocks of the town’s downtown area, and it took firefighters 18 hours to contain the inferno.
Survivors described a wall of flames as the speeding black tanker cars jumped the rail tracks just as dozens of people were enjoying a summer night out in downtown bars and restaurants.
“One young girl was in flames,” said a witness, Jean-Guy Nadeau. “She cried out ‘save me, save me!'”
Many in this heavily Catholic area were unable to go to Sunday services because their church was squarely within the burned out area. The lucky ones headed to churches in nearby towns.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said in a statement Saturday that the train had been transporting 72 carloads of crude oil when it derailed at around 1:20am.
“People are in shock. They just cannot believe how serious this all is,” said Guy Boulanger, an official with the Catholic diocese of Sherbrooke in nearby Sainte-Cecile-de-Whitton.
Rail line spokesman Christophe Journet told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 8 miles west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.
For an unknown reason, Journet said, the train “started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic,” even though the brakes were engaged.
There was no conductor on board when the train crashed, he said.
Outrage spread among local residents Sunday as they learned that the train owners had called out Nantes firefighters to put out a fire on one of the train’s five locomotives.
That 45-minute fire was caused by an oil leak due to mechanical engine problems, Nantes Mayor Sylvain Gilbert told Radio-Canada.
Less than two hours later, the train barreled into Lac-Megantic.
Scores of firefighters from around the region and from the U.S. state of Maine were enlisted to battle the blaze, which was under investigation by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB).
The lead investigator, Ed Belkaloul, said that the train’s equivalent of an airplane’s “black box” was recovered from the smoldering wreckage and could give valuable technical information on the crash.
One witness, Nancy Cameron, posted a photo on social media websites showing one of the train’s locomotives spouting flames near Nantes.
“When we came out of a bar, we saw cars arriving in the center of town at full speed,” another witness, Yvon Rosa, told Radio-Canada.
“We heard explosions and there was fire everywhere. We ran to the edge of the water,” Rosa said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday offered his “thoughts and prayers” to the community, and said the federal government was ready to provide assistance.
Provincial authorities said in addition to their recovery efforts, they have dispatched a mobile environmental monitoring laboratory to monitor air quality and to determine how much crude oil spilled into Lake Megantic and the nearby Chaudiere River.
The Red Cross also set up an emergency shelter at an area high school to help those left homeless by the disaster.