LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – About 40 people were still considered missing on Sunday, a day after a blaze and explosions pulverized Lac-Megantic, increasing the likelihood that the number of fatalities could soar from the current official death toll of five.
“I can tell you that we have met a lot of people….and what I can tell you is that about 40 people are considered missing,” Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet told a news conference.
“We have to be careful with that number because it could go up or down.”
It was the police’s first public estimate at the number of missing since the derailment of a train carrying crude oil triggered Saturday morning’s fatal events.
Brunet said two bodies were found overnight and another two on Sunday morning. The first body was discovered Saturday.
Police say a higher death toll is inevitable.
About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars laden with oil caught fire shortly after 1 a.m. One of them is the Musi-Cafe bar where dozens of people were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.
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Hampering the search for victims in the charred debris was the fact two of the train’s cars were still burning on Sunday, sparking fears of other potentially fatal explosions.
The multiple blasts over a span of several hours sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the popular downtown core in the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the town on Sunday and likened it to a ”war zone.”
In terms of financial aid, Harper said there is a formula that calculates the federal response for events like this.
”I saw this on the international news yesterday (Saturday),” he said. ”Everywhere people are talking about this.
”It’s a beautiful downtown here that’s been destroyed… There’s really going to be a need for substantial reconstruction.”
Throughout the day Sunday, people streamed in and out of the town’s evacuee shelter, which has been set up in a high school about two kilometres from the derailment site.
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 through the streets 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 loved ones.
Henri-Paul Audette headed there with hope of reuniting with his missing brother.
He said he had been told by an acquaintance that his brother, Fernand, had registered at the shelter. But he was disappointed to see 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.
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.”
Steeve Roy, 41, escaped with his two-year-old son from his third-floor apartment by a laneway behind his building.
Roy said he was asleep but that it wasn’t the derailment that woke him up.
“I heard people screaming and the shattering of glass…I heard people yelling: ‘Save yourself’ and then there was silence.”
Roy said he jumped out of bed, opened a window and saw a big wall of fire.
“I took my son and left by the laneway outside toward city hall, after that, things started exploding”. “I really had an instinct to survive and all I did was run in the opposite direction of what was happening behind me.”
The cause of the accident is a runaway train, according to the railway’s operator.
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening downhill into town.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” Edward Burkhardt told The Canadian Press on Saturday.
“But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who indicated he was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad.
“Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
On Sunday, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic issued a statement and said the locomotive was shut down after the departure of the engineer who had locked the brakes before leaving the train.
That ”may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the statement said.
”We don’t have complete information concerning this incident, but will co-operate with government authorities as they continue their investigation.”
Transportation Safety Board of Canada officials held a news conference on Sunday evening to say they will look at that scenario.
”Where the train was left in Nantes, from that location down to Lac-Megantic is down a grade, and certainly the manner in which the train was secured, both air brakes and hand brakes, we’ll be looking very strongly at that,” said Donald Ross, the investigator in charge.
He said officials have retrieved the black box of the locomotive which could hold invaluable data.
”It has data that captures things like throttle position, speed, time, distance, brake pressure,” said Ross.
The agency will also investigate witness reports that sparks were seen flying out of the locomotive in Nantes before the explosion.