'Like the town has been cut by a knife': Fears grow for dozens after runaway train explosion in Canada kills at least five

Five confirmed dead but 'toll will grow' as clean-up operation begins

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At least five people were confirmed dead on Sunday, with about 40 still missing, after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic.

Fires sparked by the incident continued to burn on Sunday night, more than 24 hours after the accident in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The explosion devastated Lac-Mégantic’s town centre, levelling buildings and forcing up to 2,000 people in the 6,000-strong community from their homes.

Police discovered two bodies on Sunday morning, after finding three overnight. About 40 people were reported to be missing, although officials warned that that number could change. “Two more people have been recovered – two more bodies – which brings the total to five… There are about 40 people, more or less, who are considered to be missing,” police spokesman Michel Brunet said. “There could be more, there could be less.”

Denis Lauzon, Lac-Mégantic’s fire chief, said the affected area resembled “a war zone” after the 73-wagon train exploded, unleashing furious fireballs and mushroom clouds of thick, black smoke.

Lac-Mégantic is about 160 miles east of Montreal, in Quebec province, and sits close to the border with the US states of Maine and Vermont.

Yves Faucher, who lives in the centre of the town and has been evacuated, described the scene on Saturday morning. “I saw though my windows, it became bright like the sun. I thought it was an explosion,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Yvon Rosa, meanwhile, had just left the Musi-Cafe bar, close to the site of the blast. He was with a friend when they saw the train speeding towards them. They escaped on to a boat on the lake and remained on the water until morning. “It was incredible,” he told Reuters. “The smoke, the heat – fire everywhere. There were people running… It was like the apocalypse.”

The train had been stopped uphill of the small lakeside town after its engineer had completed his shift, according to Edward Burkhardt, the chief executive of Rail World, the privately owned parent company of the operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

What caused the train to roll, driverless, and eventually derail was not immediately clear. Mr Burkhardt told The Canadian Press he thought the brakes had been “properly applied on this train”.

Fires on three of the five oil tanks had been put out by Sunday morning. About 150 firefighters, including some called up from the US, were at the scene, and officials said two tanks were still on fire and at risk of exploding.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was expected to visit the town last night.

“It was like a movie,” Bernard Theberge, who suffered second-degree burns on his arm as a result of the explosion, told The Canadian Press. “Explosions as if it were scripted – but this was live.”