Jonathan Poirier was enjoying a drink with his friends at the back of the Musi-Cafe nightclub in Lac-Megantic, Quebec when he saw a wall of fire coming at him. No sound, no smell of smoke, no screams, just a sheet of flames.
“It was twelve stories high, it was so hot,” said the 20-year-old resident of the town where a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, killing five people. “I didn’t even see the door of the bar. I didn’t see the train. I was lost in the fire. I ran to the exit.”
Poirier, a student, and his friends all survived a blast so intense it incinerated about 30 buildings, forced the evacuation of about 2,000 people and left the scene a “war zone,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday after touring the town, 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, and 10 miles from the U.S. border with Maine. About 40 people of the town of 6,000 are still unaccounted for, police said.
Investigators for Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said yesterday they’ve recovered the “black box” that should help determine what happened to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ltd. train, carrying 72 carloads of crude oil which crashed and exploded in the middle of the night.
While Montreal, Maine & Atlantic hasn’t completed its own investigation, the company said in a statement yesterday the train, which was parked outside the town, was shut down after the engineer left for the evening. This “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the company, a short-line carrier owned by closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, said.
Early reports indicated the train was tied down by the engineer, the company said in a July 6 statement.
Yesterday, residents huddled on their porches and behind emergency tape about 200 meters from the crash site where a pile of charred tankers lay. The downtown’s main square, which was lined with trees more than 100 years old, was a meeting place for residents who would go for lunch or look at the view of the lake, according to resident Joyce Parshyn-Lavoie, 65.
“The train ran down into the lake and lit all the trees on fire,” she said yesterday.
Lysette Veilleux, 60, heard a bang that awoke her from a deep sleep at around 1 a.m. She rushed out of her house and saw a fireball and mushroom cloud.
“I first heard a boom and ran out and saw the mushroom,” Veilleux said from her porch up the street from the blast site yesterday. “I saw the town on fire.”
Veilleux’s cousin’s daughter has been assumed dead by family, many of whom had gathered on her porch to mourn together.
“She was living in an apartment across the street from the night club,” Veilleux said, voice shaking. “She was at her apartment at 8 p.m., she told her mother she was going to bed early that night. Her mother is certain she’s dead.”
The crash is the latest in a series of accidents involving oil on rails as Canadian producers turn to shipping crude by train, with construction of pipelines such as the Keystone XL conduit to the Gulf Coast delayed by environmental and regulatory concerns. TransCanada Corp. applied to build Keystone five years ago and the project was initially rejected by the Obama administration in January last year.
Parshyn-Lavoie said the trains cross the town’s main road five times each time they pass through the area between nearby Nante and Lac-Megantic.
“No matter where it goes, there are houses all around it,” she said. “There are two curves. One that’s gradual and another that’s abrupt, they have to slow down, but they gain speed coming into town.”
Roxanne Bautin, 16, stood at the end of the police barricade all day, hoping to see her 18-year-old brother, whose name she withheld, emerge.
“He’s missing,” she said, tears running down her face. “We aren’t sure yet. He lived in the apartment in front of the cafe, we just don’t know.” The family is waiting to hear the results from the bodies sent to Montreal for testing to see if their son is among the dead.
Transportation and police investigators will be able to get closer to the site after extinguishing the final flames late last night.
“A big fire like this with enormous damage and many dead, Quebec police must investigate,” Lt. Michel Brunet, a spokesman with the Surete du Quebec provincial police, said at a news conference in Lac-Megantic yesterday morning. “That’s why it’s become a crime scene.
‘‘You’ve seen the fire, you can deduct the state the bodies are in,” Brunet said. Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman with the coroner’s office, said the team has deployed a multiple-victim unit that hasn’t been used in at least five years.