Five dead, 40 missing in Canada train disaster

LAC MEGANTIC, Canada / Quebec (AFP) - Officials in Canada said on Sunday they have located five bodies so far in their grim search for victims from the catastrophic derailment of an oil laden cargo train, and expect to find many more.

Ongoing fires meant police were still unable to conduct a full search of the charred wreckage at the disaster scene in the Quebec village of Lac-Megantic, where a runaway oil tanker train derailed and exploded.

The accident devastated the centre of this small town 250km east of Montreal, and forced about 2,000 to flee their homes there.

Police spokesman Michel Brunet said after finding one body late Saturday, they now have found four others and anticipate "many more" fatalities as a result of the disaster. He added that the official figure for missing people is 40.

Saturday's crash of an oil-laden train and subsequent explosions decimated the center of the village of Lac-Megantic, which has a population of just 6,000 people.

One firefighter said on condition of anonymity that there had been at least 50 people in one bar that was consumed by the flames.

"There is nothing left," he said.

The explosion completely leveled more than four blocks of the town's downtown area, and it took firefighters 18 hours to contain the inferno - and at least two oil-tanker cars continue to burn, firefighters said on Sunday.

Brunet had said on Saturday that the fire was so intense investigators couldn't go anywhere near the devastated downtown neighbourhood.

Witnesses said they heard the train pass by at what seemed like a greater than usual speed, then careen off the rails and erupt into flames.

Survivors of the explosion described a wall of flames as the fuel-laden cars left the tracks as dozens of people enjoyed a summer night in bars and on restaurant in the center of town.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said in a statement on Saturday that the train had been transporting 72 carloads of crude oil when it derailed at around 1.20am. (1.20pm Singapore time)

A spokesman for the rail line, Christophe Journet, told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 13 kilometers west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.

For an unknown reason, Journet said, the train "started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic," even though the brakes were engaged.

As a result, "there was no conductor on board" when the train crashed, he said.

Scores of firefighters from around the region and from the United States state of Maine were enlisted to battle the blaze, which was under investigation by Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB).

One witness, Nancy Cameron, posted a photo on social media websites showing one of the train's locomotives spouting flames near Nantes.

Other witnesses were in Lac-Megantic when the train came barreling in.

"When we came out of a bar, we saw cars arriving in the centre of town at full speed," Ms Yvon Rosa told Radio-Canada.

"We heard explosions and there was fire everywhere. We ran to the edge of the water," Rosa said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday offered his "thoughts and prayers" to the community and said the federal government was ready to provide assistance.

Provincial authorities said in addition to their recovery efforts, they have dispatched a mobile environmental monitoring laboratory to monitor air quality and to determine how much crude oil spilled into Lake Megantic and the nearby Chaudiere River Meanwhile, the Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at an area high schools to help those left homeless by the disaster.

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