'Lac-Megantic is like a war zone': 13 dead and at least 50 missing in Quebec as dangerous conditions hamper rescue teams at Canada train blast site

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Authorities fear death toll will soar once they're able to reach the hardest-hit areas

At least 50 people remain missing a day after a train derailed in Quebec, ploughing into the city's busy downtown district and killing 13 people.

Quebec police said late on Monday that they had so far recovered 13 bodies from the blackened rubble of what was once the historic downtown strip.

The coroner's office asked relatives of the missing to bring in brushes, combs and razors so specialists could extract DNA samples from strands of hair.

With the fires now out and the authorities finally able to access the epicentre of the blasts, the death toll is expected to climb and many of the town's evacuated residents will finally be allowed back to assess the damage.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper compared the area to a war zone and said about 30 buildings were incinerated.

Click here to view a map of the disaster zone

By Monday evening, the emergency crews had finally reached the Musi-Cafe, a downtown bar near the blasts epicentre. A band was performing that night and the building was packed with people, eyewitnesses told Reuters.

The train's 72 oil-filled tanker cars somehow came loose early Saturday morning, sped downhill nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) into the town, derailed and began exploding one by one. At least five exploded.

The eruptions sent residents of Lac-Megantic scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky. The district is a popular area packed with bars that often bustles on summer weekend nights. Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1am local time. Fire then spread to several homes.

Two tanker cars were burning Sunday morning, and authorities were still worried about them Sunday evening. Local Fire Chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters were staying 500 feet (150 meters) from the tankers, which were being doused with water and foam to keep them from overheating.

“This is an unbelievable disaster,” said Harper, who toured the town Sunday. “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated. There isn't a family that is not affected by this.”

The growing number of trains carrying crude oil in Canada and the United States had raised concerns of a major derailment.

A coroner's spokeswoman said it may not be possible to recover some of the bodies because of the intensity of the blasts.

Local Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and about 20 acquaintances remained unaccounted for. She said she was lucky to be working that night, otherwise she likely would have been at a popular bar that was leveled in the blast.

“I have a friend who was smoking outside the bar when it happened, and she barely got away, so we can guess what happened to the people inside,” Huot said. “It's like a nightmare. It's the worst thing I can imagine.”

About a third of the community of 6,000 was forced out of their homes. The town is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of Montreal and just west of the Maine border.

Transportation Safety Board investigator Donald Ross said the black box of the locomotive has been recovered, but officials haven't been able to access much of the site.

Edward Burkhardt, the president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had been parked uphill of Lac-Megantic because the engineer had finished his run. The tanker cars somehow came loose.

“We've had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” Burkhardt said. “Well, I think we've blown it here.”

Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic's vice president of marketing, said the company believes the brakes were the cause.

“Somehow those brakes were released, and that's what is going to be investigated,” McGonigle said in a telephone interview Sunday. “ We're pretty comfortable saying it is the brakes. The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose.”

Lauzon, the fire chief, said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Lauzon said he could not provide additional details about that fire since it was in another jurisdiction. McGonigle confirmed the fire department showed up after the first engineer tied up and went to a local hotel. Someone later reported a fire.

“We know that one of our employees from our engineering department showed up at the same time to assist the fire department. Exactly what they did is being investigated so the engineer wasn't the last man to touch that train, we know that, but we're not sure what happened,” McGonigle said.

McGonigle said there was no reason to suspect any criminal or terror-related activity.

The train's oil was being transported from North Dakota's Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport much of the oil to refineries.

The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada's tracks this year — up from just 500 carloads in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year.

Harper has called railroad transit “far more environmentally challenging” while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Greenpeace Canada said Sunday that federal safety regulations haven't kept up with the enormous growth in the shipment of oil by rail.

“We think it is safe. We think we have a safe operation,” McGonigle said of carrying oil by rail. “No matter what mode of transportation you are going to have incidents. That's been proven. This is an unfortunate incident.”

Additional reporting Associated Press

Video: Canada train crash toll rises

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there