UP TO 100 people are missing and five have been confirmed dead after a runaway train derailed and exploded in the centre of a small Canadian town, destroying bars and shops on a busy Friday night.
Tanker cars full of crude oil uncoupled from the rest of the train and rolled downhill into the town centre of Lac-Megantic in the eastern province of Quebec, forcing locals and holidaymakers to run for their lives at around 1am local time.
Police have evacuated almost 2,000 people and set up an exclusion zone around the blast area, with the fire yet to be brought under control and ongoing concerns that two of the tankers still represent a risk of explosion, some 36 hours after incident.
Officers confirmed one death on Saturday afternoon and two more today, but the extent of the destruction has made it difficult to establish an exact toll.
Sgt. Grégory Gomez del Prado from the Quebec provincial police told CBC it's possible up to 100 people could be missing, and said: "It's like the town has been cut by a knife."
At least one bar near the rails that was destroyed in the blast has been reported as being full at the time.
But an official spokesperson for the police said they did not want to "get into numbers", as some people were being reported missing multiple times by different members of their family.
Lt. Guy Lapointe added that: "We do expect we'll have other people who will be found deceased."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement that read: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this morning's tragic train derailment and subsequent fires."
It is still unclear how the pressurised tanks of petrol ended up in Lac-Megantic. The 73-car train from which they became uncoupled had been parked for the night around 7km (4 miles) uphill of the lakeside town.
Edward Burkhardt, the president of Rail World Inc. which operates trains for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said: "If brakes aren't properly applied on a train, it's going to run away. But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.
He said: "We've had a very good safety record for these 10 years. Well, I think we've blown it here."
Around 150 firefighters have been tackling the blaze, some brought in from the US. The fire continued to burn on Sunday morning, though fire officials said it was brought under control on Saturday afternoon.
Local fire chief Denis Lauzon described the scene as one akin to a war zone.
Witnesses said the eruptions sent many shook residents out of their slumber and sent them darting through the streets.
Witnesses described the scene to Associated Press reporters. Bernard Theberge, who was outside on the bar's patio at the time, said he feared for the safety of those inside the popular Musi-Cafe when the first explosion went off.
"People started running and the fire ignited almost instantaneously," he said. "It was like a movie - explosions as if it were scripted - but this was live."
"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's a catastrophe. It's terrible for the population."
Demers, who fled his home, said the explosion was "like an atomic bomb". He said: "It was very hot… Everybody was afraid."
With each tanker car containing 100 tonnes of crude oil, there were also health concerns beyond the initial impact of the fire. Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said a large amount of fuel had spilled into the nearby Chaudiere River, and warned locals to be careful if using its water.
He said a mobile laboratory had been set up to monitor the quality of the air.
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