Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. The derailment sparked several explosions and forced the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Fires continued burning late Saturday nearly 24 hours after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in eastern Quebec, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed a town's center and killed at least one person. Police said they expected the death toll to increase.
The eruptions sent residents of Lac-Megantic scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky, witnesses said. Flames and billowing black smoke could still be seen long after the 73-car train derailed, and a fire chief likened the charred scene to a war zone.
Up to 2,000 people were forced from their homes in the lakeside town of 6,000 people, which is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of Montreal and about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the Maine border.
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.
Lt. Guy Lapointe, a spokesman with Quebec provincial police, said: "I don't want to get into numbers, what I will say is we do expect we'll have other people who will be found deceased unfortunately."
Lapointe refused to give any estimate of people unaccounted for because police were having difficulty getting a fixed number.
"People are calling in reported love ones missing, some people are reported two, three times missing by different members of the family," he said.
The derailment caused several tanker rail cars to explode in the downtown, a popular area packed with bars that often bustles on summer weekend nights.
Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m. local time. The fire then spread to several homes.
"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 accident was believed to be a runaway train, the railway's operator said.
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had been parked uphill of Lac-Megantic.
"If brakes aren't properly applied on a train, it's going to run away," said Edward Burkhardt. "But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train."
Burkhardt, who was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
"We've had a very good safety record for these 10 years," he said of the decade-old railroad. "Well, I think we've blown it here."
The blasts came over a span of several hours as the fire tore through the center of town, destroying at least 30 buildings. Lines of tall trees in the area looked like giant standing matchsticks, blackened from bottom to tip.
Witnesses said the eruptions sent many shook residents out of their slumber and sent them darting through the streets.
Patrons gathered by a nearby bar were sent running for their lives after the thunderous crash and wall of fire blazed through the early morning sky.