As the search for victims continues, authorities in Quebec are investigating Sunday's derailment of a runaway freight train carrying oil. Firemen have managed to put out a raging fire caused by an explosion.
Officials said on Sunday five bodies had been located so far, with at least 40 people missing. The death toll is expected to rise, with the Quebec coroner's office setting up a structure to handle multiple deaths.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet said it was anticipated there would be "many more" fatalities.
The accident early on Sunday occurred in the village of Lac-Megantic, around 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal. It forced at least 1,000 people from their homes and decimated at least four blocks of the town's downtown area. The destroyed area has been declared a crime scene, Brunet said.
Fires in some zones at the scene had prevented police from carrying out a full search, while some areas have been too hot for investigators to enter. It appears the risk of explosion from some of the oil tankers is diminished, with firemen managing to put out a blaze caused by an explosion after the train derailed.
"The flames, the fires all have been put out now. We did it," fire chief Denis Lauzon told a press conference.
Survivors of the explosion have described a wall of flames as the cars left the tracks, while witness have said the train was traveling at what seemed like a greater-than-usual speed, then derailed and erupted into flames.
The rail line Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said the train had been transporting 72 carloads of crude oil. A spokesman, Christophe Journet, said it had stopped for a crew changeover in the nearby town of Nantes, about 13 kilometers west of Lac-Megantic, and was parked at a siding on a hill.
For unknown reasons, the train "started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic," even though the brakes were engaged, Journet said.
It was for this reason that "there was no conductor on board" when the train crashed, Journet said.
Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper reported that fire broke out on the train late Saturday when it stopped in Nantes. It quoted fire chief Patrick Lambert as saying that firefighters believed the fire had been extinguished by midnight. It is not known what role the fire had in the later explosions.
The broadcaster CBC Montreal said the train's driver left for a hotel, with a replacement crew expected to take over later in the night. It said rail officials believed the train's brakes had been properly applied.
The Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter to help those left homeless by the disaster, while a mobile environmental laboratory has been sent out to monitor air quality and determine how much crude oil spilled into Lake Megantic and the Chaudiere River.
jr/ccp (AFP, dpa, Reuters)