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Quebec derailment spares little

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — As firefighters on Sunday evening finally doused burning tanker rail cars, the death toll grew to five in this devastated town in eastern Quebec.

A conductor-less 73-car train, which had been parked overnight at the top of a hill eight miles away, barreled into Lac-Megantic at high speed about 1 a.m. on Saturday when the brakes holding it stationary apparently failed, Canadian media reported.

The flames from the explosions destroyed the town center, including the Musi-Cafe, a live music venue that was packed with dozens of drinkers.

Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said that about 40 people have been reported missing by immediate family members but cautioned that the number could fluctuate.

Fire Chief Denis Lauzon likened the charred scene to “a war zone.”

Several blasts occurred over a span of several hours in the town of 6,000, which is about 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of the Maine border. It is a picturesque lakeside town in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

“This is really terrible. Our community is grieving, and it is taking its toll on us,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town where about 30 buildings had been incinerated.

“This is an unbelievable disaster,” Harper said. “There isn't a family that is not affected by this.”

All but one of the rail cars were filled with oil, which was being transported from North Dakota's Bakken oil region to a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The cause of the crash is being investigated. Christophe Journet, a spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, said that the train had stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, about eight miles west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.

Journet said for reasons not yet clear, the train “started to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic,” even though the brakes were engaged. Firefighters said, though, that they had been called to a blaze on the train a few hours before the derailment.

Some eyewitnesses later reported seeing it traveling ablaze en route to Lac-Megantic, prompting eerie rumors of a “ghost train.”

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