Officials in Canada said they have located five bodies so far in their grim search for victims from the catastrophic derailment of an oil-laden cargo train, and expect to find as many as 40 more.
Firemen in this picturesque Quebec lakeside town finally managed Sunday to put out a raging inferno sparked more than a day earlier when a driverless freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, sending fireballs skyward and unleashing a wall of fire that tore through downtown 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.
But the accident devastated the center of this small town 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, near the US border, and forced about 2,000 to flee their homes there. Locals struggled to come to terms with the scope of the disaster.
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
“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.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet said after finding one body late Saturday, they now have found four others and anticipate “many more” fatalities. The official figure for missing people is 40, he said.
Saturday’s crash of the freight train carrying crude and subsequent explosions decimated the downtown portion of Lac-Megantic, population 6,000.
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, firefighters said.
Brunet had said Saturday that the fire was so intense investigators couldn’t go anywhere near the devastated area.
Witnesses said they heard the train pass by at what seemed like a greater than usual speed, then careen off the rails and erupt into flames.
Explosion survivors described a wall of flames as the black tanker cars jumped the rail tracks just as dozens of people were enjoying a summer night out in downtown bars and restaurants.
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 1:20 am (0520 GMT).
A spokesman for the rail line, Christophe Journet, told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 13 kilometers 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.
As a result, “there was no conductor on board” when the train crashed, he said.
Scores of firefighters from around the region and from the US state of Maine were enlisted to battle the blaze, which was under investigation by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB).
One witness, Nancy Cameron, posted a photo on social media websites showing one of the train’s locomotives spouting flames near Nantes.
Other witnesses were in Lac-Megantic when the train came barreling in.
“When we came out of a bar, we saw cars arriving in the center of town at full speed,” 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 schools to help those left homeless by the disaster.