UPDATE: Runaway oil train explodes in Canadian town, 47 dead (VIDEOS)

oil train explosion canada
© François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images

A 73-car train transporting crude oil derailed and exploded Saturday, killing at least four 13 people and destroying some 30 buildings in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Sadly, with some 40 50 people still missing officials warn that the death toll is expected to rise significantly. After visiting the site of the disaster Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the historic district of the small Canadian town where the explosions occurred looks like a war zone.

UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for continuing updates.

Here's video of the train and buildings burning:

Tracy Jarrett at NBC News reports on the nightmarish fire:

Burning crude spilled into the storm sewers and rose up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire, the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.

A Twitter user shared this stunning photo of the massive fire:

The Star has a truly haunting story of one survivor and the eerily calm scene at the local hospital:

The heat and the danger along Lac-Mégantic’s Rue Frontenac, the main strip, had forced the frantic taxi driver out of the epicentre of the disaster and left his best friend, wife and two children, aged 3 and 8, to fend for themselves.

“He told me it was like a river of fire because the oil had spilled out of the wagons.”

Back at the hospital, reinforcements from neighbouring medical centres were standing by, ready to rush to Lac-Mégantic to treat what they expected would be dozens of injured residents. Hospital authorities were also ready to evacuate all their patients in case the wind shifted and blew the black, toxic smoke in their direction.
But then nothing happened. The wind blew the smoke in the opposite direction and no patients with any of the serious burns and other injuries that might have been expected arrived at the emergency room.

One Red Cross volunteer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media put it bluntly: “You have to understand: there are no wounded. They’re all dead.”

I will continue to update this post as we learn more about this terrible event.

For more on the Lac-Megantic, Quebec explosion and for ways to donate to help, Canada's CBC is doing a good job with coverage and has an updated post here.

Below are several news reports on the explosion:

This report from The National is an excellent overview of what is known at the moment about how this train derailment occurred. Skip to 9:45 for a discussion of the environmental risks:

UPDATE: The Star reports on how the brakes are thought to have failed:

"Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said Sunday night that the train’s sole engineer shut down four of the five locomotive units on the train, as is standard procedure, in the neighbouring community of Nantes before heading to Lac Mégantic to sleep. Burkhardt said the next engineer was probably due to arrive at daybreak.

But someone managed to shut down the fifth locomotive unit, he said. That’s the one that maintained brake pressure to keep the train in place.

“If the operating locomotive is shut down, there’s nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can’t be held in place any longer,” Burkhardt said.

There are two ways to shut down the fifth unit: There’s an emergency lever on the outside of the locomotive that anyone wandering by could access. Or, there are a number of levers and buttons inside the unlocked cabin.

Both means were used, said Burkhardt."

The Globe and Mail asks Four questions about the Lac-Mégantic disaster, including whether someone may have tampered with the train. Another source of suspicion is how the brakes could have failed following an earlier fire that firefighters put out an hour before the train derailed and rolled into Lac-Mégantic:

Around 12:15 a.m. Saturday, the Nantes fire department was called after a passerby noticed that one of the MMA train’s diesel engines had caught fire.

A leak near a locomotive wheel had left diesel trickling down for several kilometres before Nantes, according to Le Journal de Québec.

The company says its staff made sure the train was secure after the Nantes fire.

At approximately 1:15 a.m., the train then began rolling towards Lac-Mégantic.

The National Post has more of the gruesome details of the how a 'wall of fire' hit a popular nightlife spot:

When Mr. Gagné left the bar, there were about 50 customers inside and 30 on the patio. Some would have gone home before the derailment, but dozens remained. “They won’t find anyone [alive],” he said. “It’s impossible. People are waiting for news, but a fire at that temperature, nothing remains. It melts cars.”

UPDATE IV: TreeHugger's Lloyd Alter connects the dots and concludes this was not a failure of brakes, but a failur of people and management.

This wasn't brake failure; The air brakes did exactly what air brakes do when you turn off the air supply and leave. This was human failure in neglecting to set the hand brakes. It was a systemic failure in designing a system without backups. It was a management failure, with cutbacks so severe that they leave running engines unattended and don't have the brakemen to do what is obviously a critical job, setting the handbrakes.

Don't blame the brakes, it's people that failed.

This wasn't a brake failure. It was people, management and the system that failed. And 40 people are dead.

UPDATE V: The death toll has risen to 13 and police have increased the number of missing from 40 to 50.

UPDATE VI: CBC reports statements from Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of the board of Rail World Inc., that confirms Lloyd Alter's theory that the fire earlier in the night is when the engine-powered air brakes were shut down. This has not stopped Burkhardt from denying that his railway company is negligent in this disaster.

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of the board of Rail World Inc., said that by shutting off the locomotive in order to deal with the fire, the firefighters could have unknowingly shut off the train's air brakes.

"As the air pressure depletes, [the brakes] will become ineffective," he said.

However, firefighters in Nantes said when they left the train it was in the care of a track maintenance employee.

Burkhardt said the track maintenance employee might not have known how to re-secure the train's brakes, but he said local firefighters should have done more, suggesting they could have called the engineer who was asleep just across the street.

Nantes fire chief, Patrick Lambert, said his colleagues did their job.

"Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy," Lambert said. "They had two people come meet us … They said everything was out, the fire was out and everything was stabilized and that we could leave."

Ultimately, Burkhardt downplayed his company's responsibility.

"Is any of this huge negligence? No you can't point to that," he said.

UPDATE VII: July 23 - Police now estimate that 47 people were killed.

In addition to the deadly blast, The Edmonton Journal reports that 5.7 million litres (1.5 million gallons) of oil spilled in Lac-Mégantic:

There were 7.2 million litres of light crude oil aboard the ill-fated Montreal Main & Atlantic Railway train, but Quebec’s Department of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks says about 5.7 million litres were released into the air, water and soil during the derailment.

Of the 72 tankers, which were carrying 100,000 litres each, only nine withstood the impact. Twenty tankers were completely emptied, and an additional 43 — with an estimated 600,000 litres among them — were drained and moved in the cleanup efforts following the deadly explosion.

UPDATE: Runaway oil train explodes in Canadian town, 47 dead (VIDEOS)
A 73-car train transporting crude oil derailed and exploded Saturday, killing at least 13 people in Quebec.

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