“It seemed like an ‘atom bomb’ exploded,” was one comment made by a restaurant owner in the small city of Lac-Magantic, Canada Saturday, as 73 train cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded. One day later, after the worst of Canadian train disasters, dozens remain missing.
The death toll stands at five, and more bodies are expected to be recovered when firefighters are able to reach the most heavily damaged areas. The extreme heat of the fires, and the heavy black smoke from burning crude, have made it impossible for firefighters and rescue crews to reach much of downtown area.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said that 40 people are still missing, but that number could rise or fall frequently as authorities are able to search more of the devastated area.
Saturday’s 1 a.m. explosions sent people running through the streets as they were attempting to escape 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.
Five of the cars are still blazing 36 hours later. Firefighters are remaining at least 500 feet back from the flames.
“It’s a mess,” he 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. About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars filled with crude oil caught fire in the picturesque lakeside town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., said that he believes the incident was the result of a runaway train. The train had been parked uphill from the small town, and he believes cars broke loose, and traveled downhill before derailing in the town.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” said Edward Burkhardt. “But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad. “Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
The tree line surrounding the town now looks like tall matchsticks. Many local residents were awoken in the middle of the night, and sent running for safe ground.
Bernard Theberge, who was outside on the bar’s patio at the time of the crash, feared for the safety of those inside the popular ‘Musi-Café’ when the first explosion went off.
“People started running and the fire ignited almost instantaneously,” he said.
“It was like a movie,” said Theberge, who considered himself fortunate to escape with only second-degree burns on his right arm. “Explosions as if it were scripted – but this was live.”
To the people of Lac-Magantic, it was a disaster movie turned into real life.
Alfred James reporting