LAC MEGANTIC, Canada: At least 80 people are missing after a driverless oil tanker train derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, destroying dozens of buildings, according to a firefighter who was at the scene.
The accident in the small Quebec town, located around 250 kilometers east of Montreal, created a spectacular fireball and forced 2,000 people from their homes.
Officials earlier only confirmed one fatality, but warned the toll could rise. A search for bodies was to begin on Sunday at dawn.
The firefighter said on condition of anonymity that there had been at least 50 people in one bar that was consumed by the flames.
“There is nothing left,” he said.
Witnesses reported as many as six explosions after the train derailed at about 1:20 a.m. (0520 GMT) in Lac-Megantic, a picturesque resort town of 6,000 residents near the border with the US state of Maine.
Michel Brunet, a spokesman for Quebec’s provincial police, said late Saturday the official death toll remained at one but added: “We expect there will be more fatalities.”
Radio-Canada had earlier reported that 60 people were unaccounted for in Lac-Megantic, where the blaze was still raging, 20 hours on.
“There have been several reports” from people who said they were unable to reach relatives who lived near the accident site, Brunet said.
“The fire is still raging, our investigators have not yet even be able to get close to the scene,” he added, more than 12 hours after the incident.
An initial evacuation zone of a kilometer around the crash site was widened Saturday as a precaution against harmful particles in the air, bringing the total to 2,000 people forced to leave their homes.
Around 150 firefighters were battling the blaze, including some who came across the border from Maine, just 25 kilometers south of the town.
The cause of the crash was still unknown, but a spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, told Agence France-Presse the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 13 kilometers 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.
One witness, Nancy Cameron, posted a photo on social media websites showing one of the train’s locomotives spouting flames near Nantes.
Other witnesses were in Lac-Megantic when the train came barreling in.
“When we came out of a bar, we saw cars arriving in the center of town at full speed,” Yvon Rosa told Radio-Canada.
“We heard explosions and there was fire everywhere. We ran to the edge of the water,” Rosa said.
The Montreal Maine & Atlantic train consisted of five locomotives and 77 rail cars and was carrying oil from the US state of North Dakota, said the company’s vice president of marketing, Joe McGonigle.