* Canadian police say death toll now one, 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 hauling tankers of crude oil derailed and
exploded into a sky-high fireball in the middle of a small
Canadian town early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings
and killing several people.
The disaster took place soon after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) when
the runaway freight train with 72 cars and five locomotives
hurtled into Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town of about 6,000 in the
province of Quebec, and left the tracks.
Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said one person had died, and
that toll would rise, but he declined to comment on media
reports that anywhere between 40 and 80 people were missing.
"We have already confirmed one death and we expect there
will be others," he told a news conference. "We also expect that
the number of people reported missing will be greater than the
final death toll."
Crude oil shipments by rail have become increasingly popular
in North America as pipelines fill to capacity and more and more
oil is produced in western regions like Alberta and North
Dakota. But accidents on this scale are rare.
Four of the cars - which each carried 30,000 gallons of
North Dakotan crude oil - caught fire and blew up in a fireball
that mushroomed many hundreds of feet into the air.
It destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally
flattened, included stores, a library and the popular Musi-Cafe
music bar, eyewitnesses said. The town center was crowded with
weekend partygoers at the time.
Lapointe said it was hard to calculate the number of
possible victims because the area was still too dangerous for
police to examine properly. Some people had been reported
missing more than once, and some were nowhere near the town.
The blast ruptured a water main, creating a shortage of
drinking water, forcing the town to bring in special tankers.
The center of town remained blocked off, but from the air,
it was clear that many buildings had been reduced to little more
than piles of bricks and wood. Residents' photos showed the
burnt out hulks of cars next to smashed houses.
After the blast, burning crude spilled into the storm sewers
and rose up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire,
the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.
Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic
Railway, said an engineer had parked the train some distance
from the town a few hours before the disaster.
"He claims he set the brakes on all five of the engines. He
also claims he set the brakes on a sufficient number of cars on
the train," he told Reuters in an interview.
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. One woman told Radio-Canada that she
had been unable to contact around 15 of her friends.
Stunned town residents cried in the streets as the impact of
the blast sank in. Some hugged each other for comfort.
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 careened around a bend. "I saw the wagons come off
the tracks ... everything exploded. In just one minute the
center of the town was covered in fire."
Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts. More
than 21 hours after the derailment, one car was still burning
and firefighters, some of them from the United States, were
still spraying cold water from the lake on five unexploded
tanker cars they said posed a particular danger.
CENTER OF TOWN 'ALMOST DESTROYED'
Police imposed a 1/2-mile (1-km) security zone around the
blast and evacuated a total of about 2,000 people from their
"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 Town Mayor Colette
Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing earlier in the day.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, which probes all
accidents, said it was looking for the train's "black box" data
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.