Fuel train derails and explodes in Lac-Megantic, Canada

Residents describe horrific rail crash in Quebec town, while death toll of five is expected to rise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 11:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am


Some residents warily eyed the driverless "ghost train" as it rushed through the Quebec countryside. The train carrying crude oil derailed, crashed into this small town, engulfing the downtown area in flames.

Yvon Rosa said he and a friend had just left the bar when they saw the train hurtling toward them. As the town centre exploded, they ran to the lake, jumped in a boat and went out onto the water until morning.

"It was incredible. The smoke, the heat - fire everywhere," said Yvon Rosa, who had just left a bar with his friend when they saw the train career towards them. "There were people running... It was like the apocalypse," he said.

Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris yesterday, more than 24 hours after the crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night.

Officially, as of last night, only five people had been confirmed dead but about 40 people were still missing.

"There could be more, there could be less," police spokesman Michel Brunet said.

The accident and resulting huge fireball forced 2,000 people from their homes. Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed at about 1.20 am on Saturday in Lac-Megantic.

The train - 72 tanker cars loaded with crude oil pulled and pushed by five locomotives - left Montreal, 250 kilometres to the west, and was heading to the port of St. John on Canada's Atlantic coast.

Instead, its final destination was this picturesque town of 6,000 residents in the Appalachian mountains near the border with the US state of Maine.

Rumours of the runaway "ghost train" quickly spread. "It had no driver, it was an unmanned train," a young man tells his friends gathered in front of a small grocery store ironically named "Point of Aid."

Returning from an evening of playing bingo in a town just north of Lac Megantic, Antoinette Paree, 78, remembers seeing "a glimmer, a sort of fire" on the train as it made its way through the night.

Paree arrived home and was looking out from her window, which overlooks the track, when she said she heard "a loud bang - it lit up the whole house," she said. Paree ran out to save her life.

The cause of the crash was still unknown, but a spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, said the train had been stopped in the town of Nantes, around 13 kilometres west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover. For an unknown reason, Journet said, the train "started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic", even though the brakes were engaged. As a result, there was no driver on board, he said.

Residents gathered on the far shore of Lake Megantic. There, they watched much of their town go up in flames.

"I was sleeping when it happened," said Rene Bolduc, who said he lived within a few hundred metres of the scene of the accident.

"There was a boom and the inside of my house turned red with the colour of the flames."

Bolduc said he saw people running as the flames towered overhead. "It felt like the hairs on my arms and face were burning off," he said.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters