Firefighters have been unable to continue searching for more victims of the Canadian oil train disaster because the wreckage of the town where it caught fire and exploded is still too dangerous.
At least 40 people are still missing in the small Quebec community of Lac-Megantic after the accident caused by a runaway train. Five have been confirmed dead.
Police said only a small part of the scene has been searched as firefighters made sure all flames were out. Many of those missing were believed to have been drinking at a popular bar when the explosions occurred and rescuers were still not able to reach the bar.
Firefighters were focusing their efforts on two oil-filled cars dousing them with water and foam in an attempt to keep them from overheating and exploding.
All but one of the train’s 73 tanker cars were carrying oil when they somehow came loose early on Saturday morning, sped downhill nearly seven miles into the town and derailed, with at least five of the cars exploding. About a third of the community of 6,000 was forced from of their homes by the explosion and flames.
The growing number of trains transporting crude oil in Canada and the United States had raised concerns of a major disaster, and this derailment was sure to add to the debate over a proposed oil pipeline running across the US that Canada says it badly needs.
“This is an unbelievable disaster,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who toured the town and compared it to a war zone. “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes incinerated. There isn’t a family that is not affected by this.”
Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and about 20 acquaintances remained unaccounted for. “I have a friend who was smoking outside the bar when it happened, and she barely got away, so we can guess what happened to the people inside,” she said. “It’s like a nightmare.”
None of the five badly burned bodies that have been found so far have been identified and families of the missing have been asked to come forward with details that could help them identify the bodies, such as tattoos, dental records, or objects that would contain the DNA.
The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries.
The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carriages of crude oil will be shipped on Canada’s tracks this year – up from 500 in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year.
Mr Harper has called railroad transit “far more environmentally challenging” while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said that despite the disaster, they feel transporting oil by rail is safe.
“No matter what mode of transportation you are going to have incidents. That’s been proven. This is an unfortunate incident,” said a spokesman.
He said the company believes the train’s brakes were the cause. “The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose,” he said.