LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) — A train carrying crude oil derailed Saturday in eastern Quebec, sparking several explosions and a blaze that destroyed the center of the town of Lac-Megantic and killed at least one person. An unspecified number of people were reported missing.
Witnesses said the eruptions sent local residents scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet confirmed that one person had died. He refused to say how many others might be dead, but said authorities have been told "many" people have been reported missing.
Up to 1,000 people were forced from their homes in the middle of the night in the town, which is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of Montreal and about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the Maine border.
The derailment caused several tanker rail cars to explode in the downtown core, a popular area known for its bars that is often bustling on summer weekend nights. Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m.
The fire spread to a number of homes in the lakeside town of 6,000 people, and witnesses said the flames shot up highter than the steeple on a nearby church.
Flames and billowing black smoke could be seen more than 12 hours after the derailment, which involved a 73-car train.
"When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event," an emotional Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing.
The cause of the derailment was not immediately known.
Dozens of residents gathered hours after the explosion at the edge of a wide security perimeter and many feared the worst. About a kilometer (0.6 miles) down the town's main street, flames danced around a railway tanker that sat at the edge of the road.
"On a beautiful evening like this with the bar, there were a lot of people there," said Bernard Demers, who owns a restaurant near the blast site. "It was a big explosion. It's a catastrophe. It's terrible for the population."
Demers, who fled his home, said the explosion was "like an atomic bomb. It was very hot. ... Everybody was afraid."
Charles Coue said he and his wife felt the heat as they sprinted from their home after an explosion went off a couple of hundred yards (meters) away.
"It went boom and it came like a fireball," he said.
Another resident Claude Bedard described the scene of the explosions as "dreadful."
"The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone," he said.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said a large but undetermined amount of fuel had also spilled into the Chaudiere (Ah-DER-Re) River. Blanchette said the 73 cars were filled with crude oil, and at least four were damaged by the explosions and fire.
"We also have a spill on the lake and the river that is concerning us. We have advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudiere River."
He added that a mobile laboratory had been set up to monitor the quality of the air.
Firefighters and rescue workers from several neighboring municipalities, including Sherbrooke and Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, were called in to help deal with the disaster.
Firefighters from northern Maine were also deployed to the Quebec town, according to a spokesman at the sheriff's office in Franklin County.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his sympathy in a statement.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this morning's tragic train derailment and subsequent fires in Lac-Megantic, Quebec," Harper said.
"We hope evacuees can return to their homes safely and quickly. The people of Lac-Megantic and surrounding areas can rest assured that our government is monitoring the situation and we stand by ready to provide any assistance requested by the province."
The train, reportedly heading toward Maine, belongs to Montreal Maine & Atlantic. According to the railroad's website, the company owns more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.
Last week a train carrying petroleum products derailed in Calgary, Alberta, when a flood-damaged bridge sagged toward the still-swollen Bow River. The derailed rail cars were removed without spilling their cargo.
The Quebec accident is likely to have an impact across the border. In Maine, environmentalists and state officials have previously raised concerns about the threat of an accident and a spill from railroad tank cars carrying crude oil across the state.
The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway carried nearly 3 million barrels of oil across Maine last year. Each tank car holds some 30,000 gallons (113,600 liters) of oil.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has begun developing protection plans for the areas where the trains travel, spokeswoman Samantha Warren said recently.