More information and eyewitness accounts with commentary below the fold.
The disaster took place just after 1 a.m. when runaway oil tank cars decoupled from locomotives hauling a total of 72 cars. The loose tankers with brakes smoking roared into Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town of about 6,000 in the province of Quebec. A witness estimated the tanker cars were traveling 75 miles per hour.
Four of the cars blew up in a fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet into the air. Each tanker carried 30,000 gallons of North Dakota crude oil.
Officials are now reporting over 24 hours later that the locomotive caught fire before the train ran away. Firefighters from Nates, an adjacent community, were dispatched to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. AP
Ghost Train photo credit: Nancy Cameron
Burning crude that had spilled into the storm sewers and erupted through manholes, setting buildings on fire, the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.
Local firefighters were overwhelmed as the blast ruptured a water main, creating a shortage of water. Volunteer firefighters kept up a constant stream of lake water to cool freight cars into early Sunday morning to prevent further explosions.
The train exploded 30 feet from the Musi-Café bar
An eyewitness account from The Globe and Mail
Bernard Théberge, 44, a cook who lives on the outskirts of Lac-Mégantic, was out with his friends at the Musi-Café, one of the most popular hangouts in town and the last known whereabouts of many of the missing. The Musi-Café is a few metres from where the tracks cross Frontenac Street, Lac-Mégantic’s main street.Another eyewitness report from the National Post...
Mr. Théberge was on the outside patio in front of the café smoking a cigarette when the derailment happened. He heard the train coming and knew right away that something was wrong.
“It was going way too fast,” said Mr. Théberge. "I saw a wall of fire go up. People got up on the outside patio. I grabbed my bike, which was just on the railing of the terrasse. I started pedaling and then I stopped and turned around. I saw that there were all those people inside and I knew right away that it would be impossible for them to get out.
Mr. Théberge said he tried to go around front to help people escape “but there was just fire everywhere.”
"I just pedaled away, but I know a lot of people didn’t make it out. There were maybe 60 people inside. “This is a first. Smoking saved my life,” he said with a voice raspy from the heat and smoke. His right arm was bandaged for the second-degree burns.
“The train went by at 75 miles an hour, it was going like a crazy train,” said resident Gilles Fluet, who had just called it a night and left the popular Musi-Café shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday with his two friends when he saw the freight train barrelling down the tracks that cut through town.Up to 60 are reported missing
“The wheels were smoking, because the brakes were overheating. I said to my friends, ‘Run, because that’s not going to make the turn. It’s going to crash.’ We could see they were all tankers carrying oil.”
"Officials said they had few reports of injured victims, suggesting that people caught up in the blast either died on the spot or managed to escape. One woman told Radio-Canada that she had been unable to contact around 15 of her friends.' ReutersAccording to The Globe and Mail, known as Canada's National Newspaper,
At a tent at the corner of Frontenac and Lemieux streets in the afternoon, paramedics sat idly in the torrid heat with no one to help. Residents gathered to await news of survivors, which never came.Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway
Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said an engineer had parked the train outside of the town a few hours before the disaster.
"He claims he set the brakes on all five of the engines. He also claims he set the brakes on a sufficient number of cars on the train," he told Reuters in an interview.
In 2011, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic had a train accident rate of 10 accidents per million train miles throughout the company’s network, compared with a rate of 3.7 at Pan Am and a national average of 2.8 accidents per million train miles.The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, which probes all accidents, said it was looking for the train's "black box" data recorder.
Commentary and opinion below the fold...
An eyewitness report that stated “The wheels were smoking, because the brakes were overheating" indicates that the emergency braking system was probably engaged, but may not have been adequate to stop the runaway train.
The engineer stated that he "set the brakes on a sufficient number of cars on the train". This may become a point of contention. How many are sufficient when the train was parked on a grade above a populated area?
Railroad crews go "dead" in North America, which means they have been onboard for their allotted 12 hours, and can go no further. Apparently, the entire crew that parked the train left for a hotel while the replacement crew was enroute. Having been raised in a railroad family, I have some knowledge of this. My grandfather and two uncles worked for the Monon and B&O railroads.
I recall my uncle, a brakeman, would complain when he had to unexpectedly get up in the night and drive quite some distance to replace a crew following a call from the dispatcher.
Reuters reported earlier that the trains engines crashed into the city along with the tanker cars. The Montreal Gazette, however, reports that...
The locomotive portion of the 73-car train actually detached half a mile outside of the small town, he added, but the cars carrying the oil kept right on rolling. McGonigle said there are security mechanisms in place to prevent anyone from tampering with the train, and the proper checks were done by the conductor before he left the vehicle. No one except him or another employee of the company should have been able to set it in motion.Given that the cars apparently uncoupled from the locomotive, could this have been the result of one faulty train car?
As I wrote yesterday, the business of hauling crude is a "potential financial windfall for railroads battling to maintain shipping volume" as refineries "tap into the massive amounts of oil flowing from wells in North Dakota and the controversial tar sands of Alberta, Canada." According to the Maine Sun Journal in an unrelated story from 2012...
The most immediate factor that could limit business is the availability of tank cars, which are in great demand nationally.Regulation
Crude oil is not classified as a hazardous substance by the EPA.
EPA interprets CERCLA section 101(14) to exclude crude oil and fractions of crude oil - including the hazardous substances, such as benzene, that are indigenous in those petroleum substances - from the definition of hazardous substance.
The EHS list was first compiled by EPA, and subsequently incorporated into EPCRA, to identify chemicals that could cause serious irreversible health effects from accidental releases. EHSs are listed in 40 CFR Part 355.I think the train has left the station on whether crude can cause irreversible health effects. Death by immolation is permanent, and given the increase in this type of rail traffic, the EPA and other agencies should consider revising regulations.
7:57 AM PT: Morning press conference: Fire official says there is still a danger of explosion from two cars that are still burning. Two additional bodies discovered. Death toll at 3.
3:36 PM PT: Officials are now reporting over 24 hours later that the locomotive caught fire before the train ran away. Firefighters from Nates, an adjacent community, were dispatched to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. AP