(Corrects first name of rail consultant in paragraph 10, Gary
instead of Guy)
By Richard Valdmanis and Julie Gordon
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, July 7 At least five
people died and 40 were missing on Sunday after a runaway train
carrying crude oil exploded and destroyed the center of a small
Canadian town in a disaster that raises fresh questions about
shipping oil by rail.
The train had been hauling crude from North Dakota to
eastern Canada, and was parked, without a driver, outside town
when it began rolling downhill, gathering speed and derailing on
a curve at 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday.
Each tanker carried 30,000 gallons (113,000 liters) of crude
oil. Four cars caught fire and exploded in a huge orange and
black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and
flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.
Police said were investigating the disaster, and would talk
to everyone involved.
Graphic showing location of disaster
Concern rises about crude by rail..........
"Every time the Surete (Quebec police) needs to investigate,
we need to rule out any foul play," spokesman Benoit Richard
told reporters. "Right now we cannot say it is a criminal act.
We can only say we are looking at it as if it was."
Shipping oil on rail cars has skyrocketed in the past year
as crude producers seek alternatives to pipelines that are
already full to capacity. Previous accidents led to messy spills
rather than life-threatening explosions.
Brunet said about 40 people were missing after the
derailment early on Saturday. "There could be more, there could
be less," he said.
Very few injured people were treated in hospitals,
indicating those caught in the blast had either escaped or died.
"It is a black-and-white situation," Quebec Health Minister
Rejean Hebert told reporters.
It is not clear why the train began rolling down toward the
town, or why the crude oil, not normally considered highly
explosive, blew up. The rail line is owned by Montreal, Maine &
Atlantic, which said the engineer had secured the train for the
night and left.
"That's the first thing I would think of: did someone
release all the brakes?" asked Gary Landrio, a Warren,
Pennsylvania, railroad consultant with 37 years of industry
experience. "In my experience, a train doesn't just simply let
itself go down the hill into a town. There's usually a cause
BAR PATRONS A CONCERN
Genevieve Guilbault, spokeswoman for the coroner's office,
said the dead were burned beyond recognition and that DNA and
dental records would likely need to be used for identification.
"Given the size and intensity of the blast, you can imagine
the condition of the bodies," she told reporters.
White vapor still rose on Sunday from the town center, which
police have cordoned off. Photos showed shattered buildings,
burning piles of rubble and stumps of burned trees.
Residents said they were particularly concerned about people
who had been inside the Musi-Cafe bar, which was right next to
the center of the blast.
Yvon Rosa said he and a friend had just left the Musi-Cafe
when they saw the train hurtling toward them. As the town center
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.
There were people running... It was like the apocalypse," he
About 2,000 of the town's inhabitants were evacuated after
the blast, scores at them to a school transformed into a
Outside the building, Louise Boulet, 65, looked at a local
newspaper that had published an aerial view of downtown. One of
the flattened buildings was the house where her 63-year old
sister, Marie-France Boulet, lived.
"She is dead for sure. If she were alive, her car would not
still be there," Louise said, pointing to a burned-out vehicle
in the photo.
Marie-France ran a women's clothing shop from the front of
the building where she lived by herself.
"She was my best friend," Louise said as tears welled in her
eyes. "She died with all of my secrets and I will guard all of
Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 on the edge of a deep blue
lake and ringed by forests of pine and birch, is in the
predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, about 160
miles (255 km) east of Montreal and close to the border with
Maine and Vermont.
About 150 firefighters, some from the United States, spent
most of Saturday spraying cold water from the lake on five
tanker cars they said still posed a serious risk of exploding.
Fire officials said on Sunday they had contained the risk
somewhat, and only two tankers were still considered at risk of
The disaster will focus attention on the merits of
TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline from
the oil sands of Alberta to the Texas coast, a project U.S.
President Barack Obama is considering whether to approve.
Proponents of Keystone XL, which environmentalists strongly
oppose on the grounds that extracting crude from the tar sands
generates more greenhouse gas emissions than regular drilling,
say shipping oil by pipeline is safer than using rail cars.
"On the face of it this should be a boost for pipeline
solutions, especially given the improvements in pipeline
technology over the past five decades," said Ed Morse, managing
director of commodity research at Citi Group.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic owns some 510 miles (820 km) of
track in Maine and Vermont in the United States and in Quebec
and New Brunswick in Canada.
If the death toll does hit 45, it would be one of the
largest peacetime disasters in Canada since 62 people died in a
plane crash in Chilliwack, British Columbia in December 1956.
(Writing by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; additional reporting by
Scott Haggett in Calgary and Cazary Podkul in New York; Editing
by Janet Guttsman and Bill Trott)