Authorities in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on Monday July 8 were still attempting to cool down the wreckage of an exploded oil-tanker train enough to search for the 40 people missing in the wake of the derailment that sent the train careening into the 6,000-population town’s center over the weekend, killing at least five people.
Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated following the explosion, which occurred in the wee hours of Saturday July 7 after a supposedly anchored oil tanker train came loose, rushed downhill for seven miles and slammed into the downtown. Five or more of the cars burst into flame, according to the Associated Press. More than 24 hours later, fires were still smoldering.
The area was still too hot to search on Monday, and firefighters doused two other oil-carrying cars from the 73-tanker train with foam and water to keep them from bursting into flames, the AP said. In addition to the tanker cars, the train included five locomotives, four of which had been shut down per standard procedure, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway chairman told the Toronto Star. Chairman Ed Burkhardt admitted to the Star that the fifth locomotive—which should be left on to keep the brakes charged—had somehow been shut down as well. Once the brake pressure drops beyond a certain point, “they can’t be held in place any longer,” he told the newspaper. He suggested to Reuters that firefighters in Nantes, eight miles west of Lac-Mégantic, had shut down that last engine after putting out a blaze on the train that was reported after the engineer left.
Lac-Mégantic is about 155 miles east of Montreal and 10 miles from the Maine border. The train was bringing oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to a New Brunswick refinery, AP reported.
The epicenter of the destruction appeared to be the Musi-Café, a popular nightspot on the town’s main drag. Touring the devastation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened the town center to a war zone.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this morning’s tragic train derailment and subsequent fires in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec,” Harper said in a statement before traveling to the town. “We hope evacuees can return to their homes safely and quickly. The people of Lac-Mégantic and surrounding areas can rest assured that our Government is monitoring the situation and we stand by ready to provide any assistance requested by the province.”
Governor-General David Johnston also expressed condolences.
“Like so many people across Canada, Sharon and I were shocked by the unimaginable catastrophe that unfolded in Lac-Mégantic over the weekend. Our hearts go out to the residents of this community, who have been devastated by this tragedy and whose lives are forever changed,” Johnston said, conveying the message from the British monarchy. “Although we cannot begin to imagine the overwhelming distress that they are experiencing, our thoughts and prayers, and those of all Canadians, are with them as we pay tribute to the innocent victims.”
Finding and identifying the victims, many of whom were at birthday celebrations in the popular downtown bar, will be difficult and in some cases impossible, authorities said. As of Monday afternoon, five bodies had been recovered and transported to Montreal for examination. A spokesperson for the Quebec coroner’s office told reporters that some remains may never be found.
“It is not impossible when we look at the intensity of the explosion,” said the spokesperson, Genevieve Guilbault, to reporters.