A driverless freight train has exploded into a giant fireball in the middle of a small Quebec town, with one dead and an unknown number of people missing. Canadian officials fear some wagons remain at risk of exploding.
The disaster occurred shortly after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT), when the 73-car runaway train carrying petrochemicals came off the rails after speeding into Lac-Megantic, a town of about 6,000 people near the US border. Four of the pressurized tank cars caught fire and blew up in a fireball.
"We're not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book," Joseph R. McGonigle, vice president of marketing for the train firm Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, told the news agency Reuters. "He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief. ... Somehow, the train got released."
An aerial photograph showed widespread devastation in the town center. Fire officials suspected that some of the remaining tanks could still be pressurized.
Residents told reporters they had heard five or six large blasts. Nearly 12 hours after the derailment, one rail car remained on fire.
"There appears to be extensive damage in buildings, but we haven't got full report yet of injuries," McGonigle told Reuters. "But we understand that there likely are some."
According to officials, the initial blast and subsequent fire destroyed about 30 buildings in the town center. Police imposed a half-mile security zone around the blast and evacuated about 1,000 people from their homes.
Officials said they had asked for help from US fire services, with at least some responding from the state of Maine, just across the border. About 20 fire engines fought the blaze.
"When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event," a tearful Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing. "We can't give out any information on what's happening right now because the firemen haven't been able to get close," she said earlier in a radio broadcast.
Christian Blanchette, a spokesman for the province's Environment Ministry, said that a large but undetermined amount of fuel had also spilled into the Chaudiere River. Blanchette said that the explosions and fire had damaged at least four of the 73 cars filled with crude oil.
"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. "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 Chaudiere River."
mkg/ipj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)