The center of a Quebec town has been wiped out, according to the mayor, after a runaway freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a fireball at 1am on Saturday.
About 30 buildings were destroyed and 60 people are believed to be missing, but the force of the fire has prevented rescue workers from searching for survivors.
Parts of the town were evacuated in the early hours as fireballs shot several metres in the air, flames spread to nearby homes and thick acrid smoke filled the air in Lac-Megantic, which is close to the Maine border and about 250km from Montreal.
The force of the blaze has prevented emergency workers from getting close to the damaged buildings to check for survivors.
It is not yet known if anyone was killed or injured in the blast, according to the Hamilton Spectator. The Montreal Maine & Atlantic train did not have a driver and was being run on autopilot.
The train's conductor had parked the train outside the train and got off it as he waited for someone to take over his shift, when it somehow 'got released', the railway company's vice-president Josephy R. McGonigle said.
'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,' he added.
About 30 shops and homes in the town center, including the library and local weekly newspaper's office, were destroyed by the fire, which is being dealt with by firefighters from Quebec and Maine.
'We do fear that there are going to be casualties,' Sergeant Gregory Gomez del Prado, of Quebec Police, told CTV News.Witnesses said the blast flattened an apartment building and part of a bar, which had a terrace packed with people at the time of the fire, according to CBC.
Yvon Rosa had just left the bar when he saw the runaway train.
'I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the center of Lac-Megantic,' he said. 'I saw the wagons come off the tracks ... everything exploded. In just one minute the center of the town was covered in fire.'
The ferocity of the blaze has made authorities fear for the safety of many of the lakeside town's 6,000 residents. About 120 firefighters are still trying to contain the fire in the town center.'When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event,' the town's mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, said.
'We're told some people are missing but they may just be out of town or on vacation,' Lieutenant Michel Brunet, of Quebec police, said.
A Facebook page has been set up to help friends and family check on their loved ones, according to the Toronto Star.
About 250 residents have taken shelter in a Red Cross center set up in the town's high school, and more are expected to arrive there later today.
'Many parents are worried because they haven't been able to communicate with a member of their family or an acquaintance,' Ms Roy-Laroche said.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sent his sympathy to the stricken town.
'Thoughts & prayers are with those impacted in Lac Megantic. Horrible news,' he said on Twitter.
Flames could be seen from several miles away as the fire spread to several homes after the 73-car Montreal Maine & Atlantic train, which was heading towards Maine, derailed.
Zeph Kee, who lives about half an hour from Lac-Megantic, told CBC: 'It was total mayhem ... people not finding their kids.'
Resident Anne-Julie Hallee, who saw the explosion, said: 'It was like the end of the world.'
Another resident, Claude Bedard, said: 'It's terrible. We've never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.'Some of the oil has leaked into a lake and the Chaudiere River, and plumes of thick smoke can be seen from about 10km away, nearly 10 hours after the blast.
A 1km section of the town has been cordoned off and boats have been banned from coming close on the river, after flames were allegedly seen in two aqueducts.
'We have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air,' Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said.
'Firefighters are working hard to extinguish that fire, but it’s burning hard because of the crude oil,' Gergeant Gomez del Prado said,adding that it would take a while for the fire to be contained.
'We also have a spill on the lake and the river that is concerning us. We have advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudiere River.'
Firefighters have set up a perimeter around the town as they try to tackle the blaze, which was caused when four of the cars that were pressurized blew up.
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