Above: Mike Armstrong reports from the devastated community of Lac-Megantic.
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – About 40 people were declared missing amid a rising death toll in a Quebec town that saw its downtown core obliterated by the fiery explosions of a runaway train.
Five people were announced dead one day after explosions and fireballs razed much of Lac-Megantic, as tanker cars filled with crude oil hurtled down a hill and derailed in the middle of town.
Authorities warned Sunday that a higher death toll is inevitable.
After viewing the devastation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened what was once the heart of Lac-Megantic to a “war zone.”
The incident has also shone the spotlight on the contentious political debate over oil transportation, and Canada’s rapidly expanding oil-by-rail industry which has seen a stunning 28,000-per-cent increase over the past five years.
The search for victims in the charred debris has been hampered by the fact two of the train’s cars continued to burn Sunday morning, creating a no-go zone and concerns of other potentially fatal explosions.
Provincial police were initially hesitant to estimate the number of people unaccounted for and offered a figure Sunday for the first time since the derailment.
“We have to be careful with that number because it could go up or down,” Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet told a news conference.
Brunet said two bodies were found overnight and another two on Sunday morning. The first body was discovered Saturday.
Two pathologists have arrived in the town and more have been called in to take on the grim task of identifying human remains.
About 30 buildings were destroyed, including Le Musi-Cafe bar where partygoers were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.
The multiple blasts over a span of several hours sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
“It’s a beautiful downtown here that’s been destroyed… There’s really going to be a need for substantial reconstruction,” Harper said after seeing some of the damage.
“I saw this on the international news yesterday… Everywhere people are talking about this.”
In terms of financial aid, Harper said there is a formula that calculates the federal response for events like this.
When asked about railway safety concerns, Harper said it was too early to discuss causes. His office issued a statement later in the day through social media, scolding Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair for suggesting lax federal regulations might be to blame.
“We don’t have a lot of the facts, and it would really not be responsible to comment without all the facts,” Harper said.
The prime minister said the federal Transportation Safety Board, and also the police, would be investigating. Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.
Harper promised to draw lessons from the TSB conclusions to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.
“We will conduct a very complete investigation,” Harper said, “and we will act on the recommendations.”
Harper greeted and shook hands with people at a shelter for evacuees, which was set up at a high school after nearly a third of the town’s residents were forced from their homes Saturday.
Throughout the day Sunday, people streamed in and out of the shelter.
Health-care workers offered services such as psychological counselling, while volunteers handed out snacks and bottled water.
Locals shared their experiences from the night of the blasts.
A few people recalled how they darted into the streets after the explosion and ran alongside neighbours, some wearing nothing but boxer shorts.
Others who gathered outside the shelter Sunday hugged and wiped tears as they braced for bad news about unaccounted-for loved ones.
Henri-Paul Audette headed there with hope of finding his missing brother.
He said he had been told by an acquaintance that his brother, Fernand, had registered at the shelter. But, when he got there, he saw that his 58-year-old sibling’s name wasn’t on the list.
Audette, 69, said his brother’s apartment was next to the railroad tracks, very close to the spot where the train derailed.
“I haven’t heard from him since the accident,” he said.
“I had thought … that I would see him.”
Another man who came to the shelter said it’s difficult to explain the impact this incident has had on life in Lac-Megantic.
About a third of the community was forced out of their homes.
Countless businesses, houses, and pieces of local infrastructure are gone in the town of 5,900, which grew in the late 19th century around the railway in the picturesque Eastern Townships region near the Maine border.
David Vachon said he has one friend whose sister is missing and another who is still searching for his mother.
“It’s incredible. It affects the entire town,” said Vachon, whose home was also evacuated.
“It’s such a small town that everybody knows each other.”
On Sunday the railway, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said the locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train.
It said he had locked the brakes before leaving the train.
That shutdown “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the statement said.
“As mentioned above, we don’t have complete information concerning this incident, but will co-operate with government authorities as they continue their investigation.”
The president of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., had said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening into town.
There might have been warning signs hours before the disaster.
Witnesses in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before breaking loose, said Sunday that they had seen sparks and a cloud of diesel smoke as it came to a stop a few hours before the derailment.
Lac-Megantic’s fire chief said that Nantes firefighters had answered a call about a fire aboard the locomotive less than three hours before the train rumbled into Lac-Megantic.
Federal TSB officials said they planned to interview all possible participants as part of what they called a “360-degree,” top-to-bottom, investigation.
They said they had retrieved a so-called “black box” from the train Sunday.
In a statement release on Sunday, Irving Oil confirmed the crude oil was destined for a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Irving says they have offered emergency response assistance.
-With files from Global News
© 2013 The Canadian Press