Hazardous conditions slowed firefighters’ attempts Monday afternoon to search for some 40 people still missing after a runaway oil tanker train exploded over the weekend in a Quebec town, killing at least five people and incinerating at least 30 buildings, officials said. Few residents hold out hope that they will be found alive.
Richard Gagne, a spokesman for Quebec provincial police, said it was still too risky to begin searching for the missing, while firefighters made sure all flames were out and the unexploded oil tankers were kept cool.
The crash raised questions about the safety of Canada’s growing transportation of oil by train.
All but one of the train’s 73 tanker cars were carrying oil when they somehow came loose early Saturday, sped downhill nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, and derailed, with at least five of the cars exploding.
The train’s owners said they believed brake failure was to blame. “Somehow those brakes were released, and that’s what is going to be investigated,” Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s vice president of marketing, said Sunday.
Meanwhile, crews were working to contain 27,000 gallons (100,000 liters) of light crude that spilled from the tankers and made its way into nearby waterways. There were fears it could flow into the St. Lawrence River all the way to Quebec City.
The heart of the town of about 6,000 was leveled — including a popular eatery where several dozen revelers were believed to have been at the time of the explosions. About a third of the community was forced out of their homes.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town Sunday and compared it to a war zone.
The growing number of trains transporting crude oil in Canada and the United States had raised concerns of a major disaster, and this derailment was sure to bolster arguments that a proposed oil pipeline running from Canada across the U.S. — one that Canadian officials badly want — would be safer.
The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries.