LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – About 40 people are considered missing after the spectacular blaze and explosions that razed much of Lac-Megantic, increasing the likelihood that the number of fatalities could soar from the current official death toll of five.
“I can tell you that we have met a lot of people….and what I can tell you is that about 40 people are considered missing,” Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet told a news conference.
“We have to be careful with that number because it could go up or down.”
It is the first time police have gone public with an estimate since the derailment of a train carrying crude oil triggered Saturday morning’s fatal events.
Brunet said two bodies were found overnight and another two on Sunday morning. The first body was discovered Saturday.
Police say a higher death toll is inevitable.
About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars laden with oil caught fire shortly after 1 a.m. One of them is the Musi-Cafe bar where dozens of people were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.
Hampering the search for victims in the charred debris is the fact two of the train’s cars were still burning on Sunday morning, sparking fears of other potentially fatal explosions.
The multiple blasts over a span of several hours sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the popular downtown core in the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
They also sent sent spectacular fireballs and mushroom clouds into the sky.
“It was like a movie,” said Bernard Theberge, who was close to the accident site and suffered second-degree burns on his arm.
“Explosions as if it were scripted — but this was live.”
Firefighters continued to fight multiple blazes. They doused five tankers with lake water and foam in an effort to keep them from overheating and exploding.
Authorities said Saturday that no federal assistance — such as military help — had been requested.
“We have all the firemen that we need,” Lac-Megantic fire chief Denis Lauzon said, adding they had 125 firefighters on the ground.
He also said crews have all the equipment they need, except for water bombers, which were busy fighting forest fires in another part of the province.
Lauzon spoke about some of the losses in Lac-Megantic, including the town’s library and its archives.
“It’s the heritage of the town of Lac-Megantic,” he said.
“The history of the town has been lost… These are ancestral buildings that are no longer there.”
The cause of the accident is believed to be a runaway train, according to the railway’s operator.
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening downhill into town.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” Edward Burkhardt told The Canadian Press on Saturday.
“But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who indicated he was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad.
“Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
Responding to a reporter’s question on Saturday, Lauzon confirmed that firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Lauzon said he could not provide additional details about that fire since it was in another jurisdiction.
Theberge, who was outside on the bar’s patio at the time of the crash, feared for the safety of those inside the Musi-Cafe when the first explosion went.
“People started running and the fire ignited almost instantaneously,” he said.
“It was like a wall of fire with intense heat.”
Witnesses said the eruptions sent many stunned locals darting through the streets under the powerful heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 people were forced from their homes as authorities set up a wide security perimeter around the town. The perimeter was reduced on Sunday.
After the explosions and fire tore through the centre of town, many buildings were gone, almost as if they had vanished. Lines of tall trees in the area looked like giant standing matchsticks, blackened from bottom to tip.
Asked by a reporter what the scene looked like up close, Lauzon summed it up: “A war zone.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit Lac-Megantic on Sunday afternoon.