MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, July 7, 2013 (ENS) – Balls of fire filled the sky above the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic early Saturday morning after a driverless train carrying crude oil exploded and burned. Five people are dead and about 2,000 others were forced from their homes in the town on the shore of Lake Megantic.
Quebec Provincial Police Lieutenant Michel Brunet told a news conference early Sunday, “We know there will be more deaths.” The police have more than 40 people officially listed as missing, he told reporters.
“A big fire like this with enormous damage and many dead, Quebec police must investigate,” Lieutenant Brunet said. “That’s why it’s become a crime scene. Investigators will continue to work and meet with families.”
Police officials said they believe at least 50 tanker cars caught fire when the train derailed in Quebec’s Eastern Townships 253 kilometers east of Montreal and close to the Canada-U.S. border near the boundary between Maine and New Hampshire.
The incident started at 1:15 am with a bang so loud it shook the whole town of Lac-Mégantic. The population of 6,000 saw the whole sky light up, one resident said.
The eastbound train is owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, MMA, a division of the Chicago-based Rail World Inc. The train was hauling 72 carloads of crude oil and five locomotive units, the company said in a statement. The train was carrying the crude to Irving Oil Corporation’s Saint John refinery in New Brunswick.
The company said railway personnel were able to pull 13 carloads intact from the site at the rear of the train.
A day after the accident, officials say some zones at the scene are still too hot for investigators to enter.
The Red Cross is mobilizing volunteer teams and deploying emergency material in Lac-Mégantic to help public authorities and come to the aid of the survivors.
The municipality has opened an information center and emergency shelter at the Polyvalente Montignac de Lac-Mégantic, where the Red Cross is helping to organize services. A Red Cross mobile rapid response unit is on the way with more than 700 beds, blankets and pillows, among other necessities.
MMA personnel have been kept out of the derailment area by Quebec and Canadian officials, the company said. “Provincial and Federal authorities have taken control of the derailment area, and MMA personnel have not been able to enter to continue their investigation concerning cause and to plan recovery operations,” said the company.
“There are a dozen MMA representatives on hand in Lac-Mégantic, with more arriving continuously. Many have been there since yesterday afternoon, in spite of statements that MMA people have not been available,” the company said. “MMA management and employees are devastated at this news. We extend heartfelt condolences to those residents of Lac-Mégantic who have lost their homes and businesses, and particularly those who have suffered injuries and lost loved ones.”
MMA has established a command center in the Lac-Mégantic Municipal Building.
On Saturday, the company offered some details about the train’s movements just before the incident.
“Early reports indicate that the train was stopped and tied down by the locomotive engineer at 11:25 PM on the mainline at Nantes, a station approximately 6.8 miles west of Lac Megantic, for a crew change. Subsequently, the train moved downhill into the town of Lac-Mégantic, where the derailment occurred.”
“The engineer was not on the train, but had proceeded to his resting point at a hotel in Lac-Mégantic. He is safe,” the company said.
The company said Sunday that the air brakes on one of the train’s locomotives may not have been engaged, contributing to the conditions that caused the derailment.
“While the governmental investigation of the accident’s cause has largely prevented MMA from completing its own investigation,” the company said on Sunday, “one fact that has emerged is the locomotive of the oil train parked at Nantes station was shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place.”
Quebec Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks Yves François Blanchet arrived in Lac Mégantic Saturday to ensure that all the necessary manpower and equipment are deployed for the safety of people and protection of the environment.
Urgence-Environnement teams were on the scene before dawn Saturday and a mobile laboratory was brought to the scene to carry out measurements and analyses as the plume of black smoke spread across the area.
Atmospheric measurements are being performed to identify the presence of toxic substances and assess whether specific measures should be taken to avoid impacts to surrounding communities.
Three booms have been installed on the Chaudière River. Municipalities downstream of Lac-Megantic who draw their drinking water from the Chaudiere River have also received support experts to help protect the water supply for their populations.
Several oil pumps were started with the arrival of ministry staff, filling the outfall storm sewer flowing into the Chaudière River.
Minister Blanchet joined the Quebec Provincial Police on their flyover of the town center to assess the damage and environmental issues. “Despite the terrible images of devastation,” said the minister, “it ensures that all measures are taken to limit the impact on the population and the environment.”