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Canada runaway train death toll rises to five, many others missing

08 July 2013

Another two bodies have been found after a runaway train carrying hundreds of tonnes of crude oil derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic on July 6. This brings the number of bodies recovered to five, with 40 people still missing. Some 30 buildings have been destroyed in the devastated town centre and 2,000 people have been evacuated.

The train's conductor, who was in a hotel in the town at the time of the crash, is being questioned by police. He had parked the train in Nantes, about 12km away, as he waited for someone to take over his shift, when it somehow 'got released', said Joseph McGonigle, the vice-president of operator Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

The train then rolled downhill to Lac-Megantic, derailed, and many of the 73 crude-filled tanker cars exploded, sending rivers of flaming oil through the town and into the nearby Chaudiere River. 

'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,' McGonigle added.

The train’s brakes and safety system were functional when the conductor left, according to the company. The conductor inspected the train and its load before leaving for a local hotel. A replacement crew was slated to come later during the night. Sometime after, the train’s load of 73 cars broke loose and began rolling downhill towards the small town. Before it reached Lac-Mégantic, the locomotive also broke free.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who toured the town the following day, said the affected area looked like a war-zone. "It's a difficult to explain what's happened here... a large part of the down-town has been destroyed," he said.

He promised a full inquiry, but said it was too early to allocate blame for the disaster.

Police are trying to account for dozens of missing people - popular bars near the blast site were said to have been crowded at the time. "There are about 40 people, more or less, who are considered to be missing," police spokesman Michel Brunet told reporters. "There could be more, there could be less."

Only 1,000 litres of oil on board the train has been recovered, and firefighters said that all of the 73 cars loaded with crude had caught fire. On July 7, five of the cars were still considered at risk. Quebec’s environment ministry warned of toxic chemicals in the air.

'There are still wagons which we think are pressurized. We're not sure because we can't get close, so we're working on the assumption that all the cars were pressurized and could explode. That's why progress is slow and tough,' local fire chief Denis Lauzon said.

The train was transporting crude from Western Canada to Irving’s St John refinery in eastern Quebec.

This incident is likely to increase opposition to the transport of oil by train in North America, where the recent increase in production has seen the US and Canadian pipeline networks operating at full capacity. 

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