LAC MEGANTIC, Quebec – At least 80 people are missing after a driver-less oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, a firefighter back from the scene told AFP Saturday.
The accident in the small Quebec town, located around 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, created a spectacular fireball and forced 2,000 people from their homes.
Officials earlier only confirmed one fatality, but had warned the toll could rise. A search for bodies was to begin Sunday at dawn.
The firefighter said on condition of anonymity that there had been at least 50 people in one bar that was consumed by the flames.
“There is nothing left,” he said.
Witnesses reported as many as six explosions after the train derailed at about 1:20 a.m. in Lac-Megantic, a picturesque resort town of 6,000 residents near the border with the U.S. state of Maine.
Michel Brunet, a spokesman for Quebec’s provincial police, said late Saturday the official death toll remained at one but added: “We expect there will be more fatalities.”
Radio-Canada had earlier reported that 60 people were unaccounted for in Lac-Megantic, where the blaze was still raging, 20 hours on.
“There have been several reports” from people who said they were unable to reach relatives who lived near the accident site, Brunet said.
“The fire is still raging, our investigators have not yet even be able to get close to the scene,” he added, more than 12 hours after the incident.
An initial evacuation zone of a kilometer around the crash site was widened Saturday as a precaution against harmful particles in the air, bringing the total to 2,000 people forced to leave their homes.
Around 150 firefighters were battling the blaze, including some who came across the border from Maine, just 25 kilometers south of the town.
No conductor on board
The cause of the crash was still unknown, but a spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 13 kilometers 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 conductor on board” when the train crashed, he said.
A team of investigators from Canada’s transportation safety agency was quickly dispatched to the scene to investigate.
One witness, Nancy Cameron, posted a photo on social media websites showing one of the train’s locomotives spouting flames near Nantes.
Other witnesses were in Lac-Megantic when the train came barreling in.
“When we came out of a bar, we saw cars arriving in the center of town at full speed,” Yvon Rosa told Radio-Canada.
“We heard explosions and there was fire everywhere. We ran to the edge of the water,” Rosa said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his “thoughts and prayers” to the community and said the federal government was ready to provide assistance.
The Montreal Maine & Atlantic train consisted of five locomotives and 77 rail cars and was carrying oil from the U.S. state of North Dakota, said the company’s vice president of marketing, Joe McGonigle.
But Quebec authorities spoke of 72 cars transporting 100 tons of oil each. “Around 10 cars have been secured and separated from the train,” the Quebec emergency agency said in a statement.
The Montreal Maine & Atlantic company has a network of more than 800 kilometers through Quebec and New Brunswick provinces and the neighboring U.S. states of Maine and Vermont.
Updated at 8:52 p.m.