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80 people missing after Canadian 'ghost train' crash

07 July 2013, 16:07

Lac-Megantic - Some residents warily eyed the driverless "ghost train" as it rushed through the Quebec countryside. The train derailed, crashed into this small town, engulfing the downtown area in flames. Now scores of people - perhaps as many as 80 - are missing.

Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris on Sunday, more than 24 hours after the spectacular crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night.

The accident and resulting huge fireball forced 2 000 people from their homes. Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed at about 01:20 (05:20 GMT Saturday) in Lac-Megantic.

Officially, as of late on Saturday, only one person was killed and one injured.

The train - 72 tanker cars loaded with crude oil pulled and pushed by five locomotives - left Montreal, 250km to the west, and was heading to the port of St John on Canada's Atlantic coast.

Instead, its final destination was this picturesque resort town of 6 000 residents in a corner of the Appalachia mountains near the border with the US state of Maine.

In this region of thick forests, the sky is normally so clear that US astronomers use the local observatory to peer into the sky.

The town's history has been intimately linked to the rail line since settlers streamed out of train cars in the 19th century as they settled the region.

The town's motto is "from the railway to the Milky Way", said Remi Tremblay, the top editor of L'Echo de Frontenac, the local newspaper.

"I can show that this motto was on the motto of the flags that decorate the main road... but they have probably melted," he said.

Tremblay, like about 2 000 other residents, was forced to leave his home, which was near the two square kilometer area consumed by flames.

In the past years rail traffic has increased significantly. "There were more freight trains -- it was cause for concern," he said.

Dressed in heavy yellow protective gear, the town fire department chief, Denis Lauzon, said that his department wanted information on what was being moved by rail through his town. "But we had yet to present a formal request," Lauzon said.

Wall of fire

Shocked by the force of the accident, residents pressed against police barricades seeking even the smallest detail that could help them cope with the disaster.

Rumours of the runaway "ghost train" quickly spread. "It had no driver, it was a unmanned train," a young man tells his friends gathered in front of a small grocery store ironically named "Point of Aid."

Returning from an evening of playing bingo in a town just north of Lac Megantic, Antoinette Paree, 78, remembers seeing "a glimmer, a sort of fire" on the train as it made its way through the night.

Paree arrived home and was looking out from her window, which overlooks the track, when she said she heard "a loud bang - it lit up the whole house", she said.

Paree ran out to save her life, forgetting her dentures and her pajamas.

The cause of the crash was still unknown, but a spokesperson for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighbouring town of Nantes, around 13km 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.

Residents gathered on the far shore of Lake Megantic around a large illuminated cross that dominates the view.

There, overnight on Saturday into Sunday, they watched much of their town go up in flames.

Linda Rodriguez followed the movement of the flames with her binoculars. "That's the pharmacy, our home is 50m away on the other side of the road," she said.

Death toll

Another resident, Mariette Savoie, feared the death toll from the "wall of fire" that engulfed her town will be high.

"Above all the Main Street shops, were homes," she said.

"All those people who were there were unable to get out."


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