Driverless freight train carrying crude oil derails at speed and explodes, destroying town centre
Scores of people were missing, feared dead, last night after 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. The disaster occurred when a runaway train sped into Lac-Mégantic, a pretty lakeside town near the border with Maine in the US, and came off the rails causing a huge fireball which mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air.
Aerial photographs of the stricken town revealed the a centre totally destroyed, with as many as 30 buildings flattened. Police confirmed one death but said they could not get close enough to determine the exact number of victims because of the intensity of the fires.
Police declined to speculate on how many had died but local sources suggested up to 60 people were unaccounted for.
Train operators Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said the train 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 parked the train and was waiting for his relief… somehow, the train got released,” a spokesman said.
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-Mégantic,” he told Radio-Canada, adding that he watched as the runaway train hurtled around a bend. “I saw the wagons come off the tracks… everything exploded. In just one minute the centre of the town was covered in fire.”
Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts. Nearly 12 hours after the derailment, one rail car was still burning. Fire officials said they had asked for help from fire services in the US; around 20 fire engines were fighting the blaze. Police said some of the tanker cars had spilled their contents into the river that runs through the town.
“I can say absolutely nothing about victims… We’ve been told about people who are not answering their phones, but you have to understand that there are people who are out of town and on holiday,” said police spokesman Michel Brunet.
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said: “Many parents are worried because they haven’t been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance. We can’t give out any information on what’s happening right now because the firemen haven’t been able to get close.” Fire officials said they feared more tanker cars were at risk of exploding. Police imposed a half-mile security zone around the blast and evacuated about 1,000 people from their homes.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, issued a statement last night expressing sympathy for residents. Lac-Mégantic is part of Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, an area popular with tourists that is close to the border with Maine and Vermont.
The rail operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, owns some 510 miles of track in Maine and Vermont in the US and in Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada.