* Canadian minister indicates death toll will rise
* Runaway train jumped rails early in morning
* Transporting crude oil from North Dakota to eastern Canada
* Disaster could figure in debate on Keystone XL pipeline
By Mathieu Belanger
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, July 6 A fast-moving,
driverless train carrying tankers of crude oil derailed and
exploded into an enormous fireball in the middle of a Canadian
town early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings and
killing at least one person, a toll officials said was likely to
The disaster occurred shortly after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) when
the runaway freight train with 73 cars sped into Lac-Megantic, a
lakeside town of about 6,000 people in the province of Quebec
near the border with Maine, and came off the rails.
Witnesses said the town center, which included bars as well
as stores, a library and residential streets, was crowded with
Four of the cars caught fire and blew up in a huge fireball
that mushroomed many hundreds of feet up into the air. It
destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally flattened,
included the popular Musi-Cafe music bar, eyewitnesses said.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet told a briefing that at least
one person had died.
He said he could not say how people many were missing. But
Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who handles Quebec affairs
for the federal government, indicated the death toll was likely
"I hope there are not too many dead," a clearly shocked
Paradis told public broadcaster Radio-Canada. "It's really
terrifying. I think the worst is yet to come."
Officials said they had few reports of injured victims,
suggesting that people caught up in the blast either died on the
spot or managed to escape.
The train was transporting crude oil from North Dakota to
eastern Canada, likely to New Brunswick, news that is bound to
revive questions about the safest way to carry the oil needed to
service North America's economies.
Rail company Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said the train had
been parked some distance from the town, and no one was on board
when it derailed.
"We're not sure what happened, but the engineer did
everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting
for his relief ... somehow, the train got released," company
vice president of marketing Joseph R. McGonigle told Reuters.
Late on Saturday, firefighters, some of them from the United
States, were still spraying cold water on five unexploded tanker
cars they said posed a particular danger. Town Mayor Colette
Roy-Laroche urged residents to use water sparingly to help the
The rail tracks pass next to the Musi-Cafe, which is popular
with young people. Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he had just left
when he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.
"I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the
center of Lac-Megantic," he told Radio-Canada, saying he watched
as the train hurtled around a bend.
"I saw the wagons come off the tracks ... everything
exploded. In just one minute the center of the town was covered
Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts. More
than 15 hours after the derailment, one car was still burning.
"Many parents are worried because they haven't been able to
communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance,"
Roy-Laroche told Radio-Canada.
CENTER OF TOWN 'ALMOST DESTROYED'
Police imposed a 1/2-mile (1-km) security zone around the
blast and evacuated about 1,000 people from their homes.
"When you see the center of your town almost destroyed,
you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going
to get through this event," a tearful Roy-Laroche told a
televised news briefing earlier in the day.
Police said some of the tanker cars had spilled their
contents into the river that runs through the town. The Canadian
Transportation Safety Board, which probes all accidents, said it
was looking for the train's "black box" voice recorder.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised a full investigation.
"Tragically, it is clear there has been loss of life but we
do still not know how extensive that is," he told reporters in
Lac-Megantic is part of Quebec's Eastern Townships region,
an area popular with tourists that borders both Maine and
Vermont. Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province in
the eastern half of Canada.
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.
The debate over shipping oil by rail is becoming
increasingly topical as U.S. President Barack Obama decides
whether to approve TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone
XL pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the Texas coast.
Backers of Keystone XL - a project that environmentalists
strongly oppose - say transporting oil by pipeline is safer than
using rail cars.
There have been a number of high-profile derailments of
trains carrying petroleum products in Canada recently, including
one in Calgary, Alberta, last week when a flood-damaged bridge
sagged toward the still-swollen Bow River. The derailed rail
cars were removed without spilling their cargo.