The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has released harrowing photos of the train derailment disaster in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where firefighters and emergency response personnel are still working to recover bodies, contain the release of oil in the Chaudière River, and prevent remaining oil-filled tankers from overheating and exploding. A freight train transporting light crude oil derailed early Saturday, causing massive explosions and a major fire in a small town 250 kilometres east of Montreal, with five reported dead and up to 40 missing so far.
Over 2,000 people have been evacuated, of the 6,000 person community, and a 1-kilometre wide security perimeter set up in the town.
Three bodies were found overnight in the centre of the town, which was levelled by the exploding tankers. Quebec provincial police confirmed that two more bodies were found in the morning, bringing the death toll up to five, according to the CBC. Hazardous conditions have reportedly hindered the search.
The train had been stopped in a siding about 12 kilometres east of the town for a routine shift change. Around 1 am ET on Saturday, its 73 cars containing pressurized oil containers rolled free from the engine, for reasons unknown. The cause of the derailment is under investigation.
The TSB released several images of the scene, showing the scale of this disaster in an otherwise peaceful town.
Andy Blatchford writes for the Globe and Mail, that the “train's brakes and safety system were functional when the conductor left, according to Montreal Maine & Atlantic. Company spokesman Christophe Journet confirmed.” A six-person team from the Transport Safety Board has been dispatched to look into the matter.
BBC News reports that, according to eyewitnesses, “by the time the driverless train reached the town it was travelling at considerable speed.” The train then derailed in the centre of the town. According to a spokesperson from the Quebec environment ministry, at least four of the cars exploded, destroying dozens of homes and businesses in the area.
Blatchford writes that the “area surrounding the explosion site was a popular place in the evenings, and witnesses said the bars and restaurants were bustling with people when the first explosion hit.”
“It's terrible…The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone,” said resident Claude Bédard.
“When you see the centre of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said, visibly emotional during a televised news briefing.
TSB locomotive event recorder.
TSB authorities examine the locomotive from which the derailed tanker cars detached.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this morning's tragic train derailment,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement, adding that “our government is monitoring the situation and we stand by ready to provide any assistance requested by the province.”
Over 150 firefighters, some from the United States, have been working since early Saturday morning to combat the fire, which affected some 30 buildings according to authorities. The fire has been “contained,” according to the CBC, but is still burning. Two of the five tankers that exploded are still on fire and “at risk of explosion.”
The derailment also caused a “large but as-yet-undetermined amount” of crude oil to spill into the Chaudière River. According to some residents, the water has “turned an orange color.” The oil is reportedly at risk of reaching the Saint Lawrence if not contained.
According to the BBC, the crude oil was being transported from the Bakken Field in North Dakota. The rail transport of crude oil in both Canada and the US has increased dramatically in recent years. Shipments of Bakken shale oil are expected to surpass 800,000 barrels per day this year, representing a 10-fold increase since 2011. The Railway Association of Canada recently announced Canada would carry 130,000 to 140,000 carloads of crude oil this year - up from just 500 in 2009.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said that the “spill on the lake and the river…is concerning,” and added that they had “advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudière River,” reports Blatchford.
Mr. Blanchette also said that “we have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air.” Over 2,000 people were evacuated from Lac-Mégantic on Saturday because Environment Quebec “has warned of toxic chemicals in the air due to the explosions,” in addition to the risk of more explosions.
Many of the evacuated stayed with family and friends. 163 reportedly stayed at an emergency shelter set up at a local school, while another 550 registered with Red Cross so they could be accounted for.
A Facebook group has been set up to help people track down missing persons.
The Lac-Mégantic tragedy comes after the recent derailment of a train carrying diluent over a Calgary bridge, as well as a Saskatchewan crude oil spill caused by a derailed CP train.
- To report missing people: 819-832-4953 #6005
- For other information: 819-583-2441
- Donations to the Red Cross: 1-800-418-1111
Image Credit: Transportation Safety Board via flickr