Sunday, July 7, 2013

At Least Thirteen Killed After Explosion From Runaway Train Derailment Levels Quebec Town Center

**UPDATE- 7/8- Local police have said they found eight more bodies around the derailment and blast site, bringing the death toll to 13 as of Monday.**

At least five people were killed and dozens remain unaccounted for in the southern Quebec town of Lac Megantic after a runaway freight train derailed and exploded in the town center early Saturday morning. The train was a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic unit oil train hauling crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to the JD Irving refinery in New Brunswick.

According to the MM&A, the 5-unit, 71 car train came to a stop at 11:25 PM Friday night at Nantes, a siding approximately 7 miles west of Lac Magantic. The engineer had tied down the train and left for a nearby hotel while the train was awaiting a fresh crew when it began rolling downhill and into Lac Megantic. Eyewitnesses said that by the time the runaway train had reached the center of Lac Megantic, it was moving at considerable speed. The locomotives were found a half mile from the derailed tank cars that triggered the blast while At least four of the derailed tank cars caught fire and exploded. Officials from MM&A and Transport Canada are hoping the locomotive's event recorder (a railroad equivalent to a plane's black box) can be recovered from the five units.

The downtown area contained a number of bars that were still full at the time of the derailment and amateur video clips showed an apocalyptic scene with orange flames shooting skyward along with thick billowing smoke over the pastoral southern Quebec town. The intensity of the heat from the derailed tank cars prevented firefighters from battling the blaze and checking the area for survivors. Firefighters from Franklin County, ME were also dispatched to aid their Quebec counterparts after the derailment.

The bodies recovered from the downtown area were burnt beyond recognition and will be sent to a forensic lab in Montreal so that they can be identified by their DNA or dental records. Local officials also said that the town hall and library were gone- the library archived a number of historic documents from the area.

Meanwhile, investigators from the Sûreté du Québec [Quebec Provincial Police] have not ruled out sabotage. Officials from the MM&A said there were also a number of failsafe mechanisms that should've prevented the train from rolling away on its own. Firefighters from nearby Nantes- where the train was initially stopped- received reports of a locomotive fire on the parked MM&A train. According to Nantes fire chief Patrick Lambert, the blaze was extinguished shortly before midnight and fire crews had left, believing the scene was secure.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic C30-7 #3613 charges up the grade between Lac Megantic and Nantes with Montreal-bound train #1 in October 2010- before the line started handling oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota destined for refining in New Brunswick. Frank Jolin photo
Hauling dedicated unit oil trains to the JD Irving refinery in New Brunswick has been boon for northeastern regionals such as Montreal Maine & Atlantic or Pan Am. The increase in oil traffic allowed the MM&A to hire new employees for the first time since announcing 75 layoffs at the end of 2009.

The unit crude trains originate in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and are typically handed off the either the MM&A in Montreal by Canadian Pacific or to Pan-Am (by CSX) in Rotterdam Jct, NY where they continue eastward to the New Brunswick Southern Railway for the final leg of their journey. Until fairly recently, both railroads had relied significantly on the fortunes of the forestry industry to pay the freight.

Earlier in the year, a Pan Am unit oil train derailed at Mattawamkeag, ME but the damage was limited to only a few gallon due to the fact that the train was approaching yard limits and already travelling at a reduced speed.

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