SAN FRANCISCO — As many as 60 residents of a small town in Quebec, Canada, were missing after a driverless train carrying crude oil derailed, and tank cars exploded and caught fire, according to media reports on Saturday.
The accident triggered evacuation of 1,000 people from Lac Megantic, Quebec, a town of about 6,000 about 150 miles from Bangor, Maine.
News outlets report that at least five people have been killed.
The 73-car train had been parked outside town for a crew change and had been left unattended, Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Vice President Joseph McGonigle told The Wall Street Journal that the train’s engineer had inspected the train at just before midnight and all was secure, McGonigle said. Sometime after that, the train started to move, eventually traveling 6.8 miles, and part of it derailed and several cars exploded, he said.
“The train was released, we don’t know how,” he said. All safety measures were in place, and the train was “secure,” he said.
All 73 of the cars on the train, which were all carrying crude, were headed to Brownville Junction, Maine, McGonigle said.
Television footage from Fox News showed plumes of black smoke and huge flames billowing from several structures and The Wall Street Journal reported oil had already leaked into a lake and a river in the vicinity.
The area around the derailment was blocked off and much of the small town’s center is affected, Aurelie Guindon, a spokeswoman for the region’s police force, told the Journal.
The accident occurred around 1 a.m. Eastern and witnesses reported four to six explosions, Canada’s CBC News said.
The scale of the explosion is likely to rank the incident as one of the worst rail disasters in North America in recent years, the Journal said.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic owns 510 miles of track in Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick, according to its website. It was bought in 2003 by Rail World Inc., a Chicago-area railway management company specializing in privatization and restructuring.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic has had seven incidents involving hazardous materials spills since 2000, the Journal said, citing data from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The most recent incident was on August 2012 in Brownsville Junction, Maine, where a small anhydrous ammonia leak was discovered, the newspaper said.
The most serious was on April 2011 when 105 gallons of gas oil was released in Easton, Maine, after several tank cars derailed during a switching operation. No injuries were reported in any of the incidents, according to the Journal.