Five die, 40 missing after Canadian freight train disaster

Sun Jul 7, 2013 6:56pm EDT
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By Richard Valdmanis and Julie Gordon

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - At least five people died and 40 were missing on Sunday after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the center of a small Canadian town in a disaster that raised fresh questions about shipping oil by rail.

The train was hauling crude in 72 tanker cars from North Dakota to eastern Canada. It was parked, without a driver, but then it rolled downhill, gathered speed and derailed on a curve in the small town of Lac-Megantic at 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which owns the line, said it was still investigating the cause of the accident, but offered one possible explanation of how the air brakes on the locomotive holding the train in position could have been released.

The firm said the release might be linked to how the locomotive was shut down when the train was parked at Nantes Station, about 12 km (8 miles) west of Lac-Megantic, on Friday night.

It said the locomotive was shut down after the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, near Montreal, but did not elaborate.

Each tanker carried 30,000 gallons (113,000 liters) of crude oil. Four cars caught fire and exploded in a orange and black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.

Police spokesman Michel Brunet said about 40 people were missing after the derailment. "There could be more, there could be less," he said. Few residents expected any of the missing to be found, given the devastation.

In the past year, crude producers began shipping much more oil on rail cars instead of pipelines, which are at capacity. Previous accidents led to messy spills rather than life-threatening explosions.   Continued...

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with people at the Polyvalente Montignac, the school sheltering the people who were forced to leave their houses after the explosion, in Lac Megantic, July 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger