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Derailed train explodes, levels center of Canada town

Agencies | Updated: 2013-07-07 03:20

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec - A driverless freight train carrying tankers of petroleum products derailed at high speed and exploded into a giant fireball in the middle of a small Canadian town early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings and leaving an unknown number of people feared missing.

The disaster occurred shortly after 1 am (0500 GMT) when the runaway train with 73 cars sped into Lac-Megantic, a picturesque lakeside town of about 6,000 people near the border with Maine, and came off the rails. Witnesses said the town center was crowded at the time.

Derailed train explodes, levels center of Canada town
A cloud of smoke is seen over Lac Megantic after a train explosion, July 6, 2013. [Photo/Agencies]

Four of the pressurized tank cars caught fire and blew up in a fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet up into the air.

Although police said they could not yet get close enough to determine the number of victims from the still-burning fires, an aerial photograph showed widespread devastation in the town center. Police also said that some in the town were worried because they could not reach missing family or friends by phone.

An official from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the firm that operated the train, said the train had been parked some distance away from the town and no one on board when it derailed.

"We're not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief ... somehow, the train got released," vice president of marketing Joseph R. McGonigle told Reuters.

"There appears to be extensive damage in buildings, but we haven't got full report yet of injuries. But we understand that there likely are some," he said.

The rail tracks pass next to a bar popular with young people. Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he had just left the bar 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 French-language broadcaster Radio-Canada, saying he watched as the train hurtled 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 told reporters they had heard five or six large blasts. Nearly 12 hours after the derailment, one rail car was still burning.

"Many parents are worried because they haven't been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told Radio-Canada.

"We can't give out any information on what's happening right now because the firemen haven't been able to get close."

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