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13 dead, 37 missing in Quebec train explosion, residents demand answers from railway

Watch above, as officials update the Lac-Mégantic disaster Monday morning.

  • To report missing people: 819-832-4953 #6005
  • For information: 819-583-2441

TORONTO – Thirteen people are confirmed dead, and about 37 are believed missing since tanker cars full of crude oil rolled down a hill in a blaze of fireballs early Saturday morning, obliterating the downtown core of Lac-Megantic, Que.

Authorities warned that the death toll is likely to climb in the aftermath of what witnesses call a “sea of fire” and a “crematorium.”

MORE: How people can help victims of the Quebec train explosion

Those who have been displaced from their houses will not be able to return home Monday, but officials expect about 1,500 will be able to get back to their residences on Tuesday. Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said safety concerns prevented overnight search operations.

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An estimated 800 tonnes of crude oil spilled into Lac-Megantic and a nearby river, which is the source for drinking water in the small tourist town of 6,000. A boil-water order was in effect for parts of the town, but health officials said certain areas were improving in terms of air quality and drinking water as of Monday.

MORE: Before and after photos of Lac-Megantic

A representative from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) explained that an engineer parked the train Friday night, activated the brakes and then went to a local hotel to sleep. Another engineer was supposed to take over, but instead the train broke loose, hurtling downhill into town.

“The locomotive of the oil train parked at Nantes station was shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” said MMA in a release.

For our ongoing coverage of the aftermath in Lac-Megantic, click here

GALLERY: Photos from the scene of the Lac-Megantic, Que. train explosion

Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert confirms the engine had been turned off per standard protocol, as his volunteer crew had put out a fire in a locomotive on that very train about two hours before it rolled away, 14 kilometres up the track.

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“You have no choice. To stop an engine fire, you have to stop the engine,” he said. “Because it’s the fuel that comes to the engine that makes the fire go.”

Lac-Megantic tragedy by the numbers

  • No. declared dead: Five
  • No. people considered missing: About 40
  • No. buildings destroyed: Between 30 and 40
  • No. people forced out of their homes: Between 1,500 and 2,000
  • No. Lac-Megantic residents: 6,000
  • No. cars on train: 72 carloads of crude oil, five locomotives
  • No. litres of fuel being carried: Nearly 100,000 in each car

Lambert said after 45 minutes, the fire was out and Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) was on the scene.

“[MMA] came, they looked it over, we inspected the engine…everything was out,” said Lambert. “They’ve confirmed that everything was okay, that we could leave. Yes, the train was supposed to be secure.”

But Lambert said an hour and a half later, he “couldn’t believe” the train had left.

“We realized that something really wrong had happened.”

Witnesses said there was no sound of brakes, and the train was going “too fast.”

Retired rail veteran Daniel Christie said it’s possible putting out the fire affected the brakes.

“If someone entered that engine and it was connected to the train and during the course of that fire—if the air was connected from the engine to the train—if someone inadvertently bumped the train airbrake valve in the engine it would could have released the brakes,” said Christie.

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LISTEN: Phone interview with Edward A. Burkhardt, President of Rail World, Inc. and Chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, who says the person who shut down the train after the engineer left was not a company employee.

After learning of the accident, Queen Elizabeth said she was shocked by the loss of life and sent her thoughts and prayers in a statement issued Monday afternoon.

“Prince Philip joins me in hoping that in time it will be possible to rebuild both the property and the lives of those who have been affected,” said the statement.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to the town, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal, on Sunday, and described it as a “war zone.”

WATCH: Harper says Lac-Megantic looks like a war zone

ANIMATED MAP: The route the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train was travelling through Quebec before it reached Lac-Megantic and derailed on July 6, 2013.

Some residents were at the Musi-Café bar early Saturday morning when the first explosion happened—immediately after the derailment at about 1:15 a.m. ET. They were only metres away, and described an apocalyptic horror.

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Bernard Theberge suffered burns while contemplating whether or not he could rescue people from the bar.

Police went door to door, asking people to leave.

The local high school was turned into Red Cross headquarters – with more than 150 evacuees sleeping in the gym overnight, receiving food, shelter and psychological help.

Ghislain Bisson was awoken by the first explosion, and caught the third blast on tape.

“The whole downtown was up in a blaze in two to three minutes…it was the apocalypse… it was the end of the world for us,” he said.

MORE: Surge in rail shipment of oil faces challenge from Quebec tragedy

Though many residents were in shock, some are angry.

Raymond Lafontaine’s son and daughters-in-law are presumed dead – leaving behind two children. Lafontaine is upset at what he believes to be the lack of oversight on the railway tracks, which cut through the town.

“Commant explique aux petites enfants que le pays etait negligent?” [How do I explain to my grandkids that the country was negligent?] he asked.

MORE: How safe is transporting oil by rail?

One local told Global News reporter Mike LeCouteur that the railway helped to build Lac-Megantic – but now it’s helped to destroy it.

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Quebec provincial police have more than 50 investigators on site and the Transportation Safety Board has another nine experts in two parallel investigations. TSB officials said they retrieved a “black box” from the train on Sunday, which may provide more information as to the cause.

MORE: Expert says Atlantic region should reduce oil use, not build pipelines

Interactive map – Disaster list of past Canadian accidents with a high cost in lives:

With files from Global News’ Mike Armstrong, Sean O’Shea, and Mike LeCouteur