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Death Toll Expected To Go Higher In Canadian Train Disaster


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. Rescuers in Quebec, Canada will be spending today searching for victims and survivors of a terrible train wreck that occurred early Saturday morning. Much of the downtown district of Lac-Megantic, a town of only about 6,000 people, was destroyed when oil tanker cars derailed and barreled into an area of bars and shops at about 1:00 AM local time.

At least five people were killed; many more are still missing. We've reached Stephen Puddicombe from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He covered the story all night and we found him just outside town. Stephen, just tell us how all of this could have happened there.

STEPHEN PUDDICOMBE: All we know for sure is the train engineer had to pull over for a mandatory rest stop about an hour and a half out of Lac-Megantic and he stopped the train, parked it, put on the appropriate brakes, and went for his rest. Somehow the brakes disengaged and the train took off by itself. It went on for about an hour and a half until people saw this train barreling through the middle of town, swaying back and forth on the tracks.

And then it derailed hear the downtown area. It separated and spread apart and blew up. Several of the cars caught fire, sending fireballs across the town. About 30 buildings were burnt, including a library, a popular bar, and the only good news is that it happened late at night so there was fewer people downtown than normally.

GREENE: Many people were asleep, I guess fortunately, and not out in the town in this area of bars. Just stunning that this was not a derailment in the way that we normally think about it. I mean this was just a train that just was scrambling down tracks and slammed into a community on its own.

PUDDICOMBE: That's exactly right. Even the company says it's at a loss. They said we have, you know, 10 or 15 years of great safety and that's all down the tubes now, it's said, because of what's happened. It wants to get to the bottom of it. It knows all the procedures were followed and they're wondering if this is just some kind of faulty mechanism within the train itself. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board is onsite and they're investigating the situation now.

Unfortunately, they're really hampered because for two days firefighters have been pouring foam and water onto the scene because they just put the fire out last night. And when you walk through there, they tell us, you're knee deep in foam and water.

GREENE: Stephen, we've only seen videos of this here. I mean, the videos are stunning. I mean, just an entirely charred, obliterated downtown area. What does this look like to you in person?

PUDDICOMBE: Where buildings were, there's just nothing there. It looks like there was a forest fire but inside the city it's just gone. There's nothing there anymore. There's just some foundations and sidewalks. It's just incomprehensible.

GREENE: OK. So you mentioned that they've put the fire out. How are the rescue efforts going? I mean, a lot of people still missing.

PUDDICOMBE: Yeah. It's really a recovery effort on the whole. And last night for the first time the provincial police made mention of the unaccounted or the missing. It refused to do that for the longest time because there were so many different discrepancies in the numbers, but last night it said at least 40 or more people are missing or unaccounted for. They've recovered five bodies so far.

They couldn't really do much searching during the time when the fires were burning, because there's other cars with oil in them and they were afraid that more explosions would happen. So they wanted to get the fire under control. They really don't think anyone survived it. You know, everybody's hoping that that's wrong, but they really don't understand how anyone could possibly survive this.

There were, like, these giant fireballs from what we've heard that went through the town in that area. So the rescue efforts really will begin today in earnest.

GREENE: And what exactly was this train carrying? You mentioned diesel. You mentioned crude oil. I mean why so much fuel on this train?

PUDDICOMBE: Well, it was coming from - from what we understand, it was coming from North Dakota and some of it was crude oil. Some of it was the product of fracking of shale gas, the extraction. It was all headed to the Irving Refinery in St. John, New Brunswick and, you know, I guess in this day and age and with a lot of exploration going around, trains are just the number one form of transportation for this type of cargo.

GREENE: All right. Stephen, I know it's going to be a long morning covering a devastating story. Thanks so much for talking to us.


GREENE: That's the CBC's Stephen Puddicombe. We reached him just outside Lac-Megantic, Canada, the site of a deadly train accident this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.