UPDATE: The train that derailed in Lac-Megantic early Saturday had no driver and sped into the small town of 6,000 completely out of control. There has also been one confirmed death, although many others are unaccounted for at this time. The fire in one of the tankers is still ablaze at this hour.
A fast-moving, driverless train carrying tankers of crude oil derailed and exploded into an enormous fireball in the middle of a Canadian town early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings and killing at least one person, a toll officials said was likely to rise.
Witnesses said the town center, which included bars as well as stores, a library and residential streets, was crowded with weekend partygoers.
Four of the cars caught fire and blew up in a huge fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet up into the air. It destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally flattened, included the popular Musi-Cafe music bar, eyewitnesses said.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet told a briefing that at least one person had died.
He said he could not say how people many were missing. But Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who handles Quebec affairs for the federal government, indicated the death toll was likely to rise.
"I hope there are not too many dead," a clearly shocked Paradis told public broadcaster Radio-Canada. "It's really terrifying. I think the worst is yet to come."
Officials said they had few reports of injured victims, suggesting that people caught up in the blast either died on the spot or managed to escape.
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.
A train carrying crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic early Saturday, sparking explosions and sending massive flames through the air. The fire has prompted an evacuation, forcing at least 1,000 residents from their homes.
The disaster occurred shortly after 1 a.m. when a freight train derailed in Lac-Megantic, a picturesque lakeside town of about 6,000 people near the border with Maine. Although police said they could not yet get close enough to determine whether there were any casualties from the still-burning fires, an aerial photograph showed widespread devastation in the town center.
French-language broadcaster Radio-Canada said one building at the center of town was a bar popular with young people. An eyewitness told the broadcaster the town center had been crowded at the time of the derailment.
"Many parents are worried because they haven't been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told the channel.
"We can't give out any information on what's happening right now because the firemen haven't been able to get close."
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said four pressurized tank cars blew up after the train, which had 73 cars in all, came off the rails. Pictures taken in the moments after the disaster showed a gigantic fireball rising high into the night sky. Residents told reporters they had heard five or six large blasts.
Nearly 10 hours after the derailment, one rail car was still burning.
“Unfortunately, we do fear that there are going to be casualties,” Quebec provincial police Sgt. Gregory Gomez del Prado told CTV News Channel on Saturday.
Lac-Megantic resident Claude Bedard told The Canadian Press that the town has never seen anything like the fire.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.”
A number of neighbouring communities, including Sherbrooke and Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, were asked to help Lac-Megantic deal with the fire.
“Firefighters are working hard to extinguish that fire, but it’s burning hard because of the crude oil,” Gomez del Prado said. “So we’re trying to secure the area for now and after that we’ll try to extinguish the fire as soon as we can, but that’s going to take a while for sure.”
The cause of the derailment was not immediately known.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said“Right now, there is big smoke in the air, so we have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air,” Blanchette said in an interview.
“We also have a spill on the lake and the river that is concerning us. We have advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudière River.”
Some of the tankers spilled crude into the Chaudiere River that runs through Lac-Megantic as well.
A railcar generally can carry between 25,000 and 30,000 gallons of oil. Given its more than 70 cars, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train that derailed had the capacity to be carrying 1.8 million to 2.2 million gallons of oil.