Fires rage 24 hours after train carrying oil derails in Quebec town near Canada-US border

Train carrying oil derails in Quebec town 2:18

Fires were still burning more than 24 hours after a driverless train carrying petroleum products derailed and exploded in a Quebec town, setting off a massive blaze that killed at least one person. Authorities warned that the death toll was likely to rise. 

Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet refused to say how high the death toll could eventually go, but said authorities have been told "many" people have been reported missing. 

Lt. Guy Lapointe, a spokesman with Quebec provincial police, said: "I don't want to get into numbers, what I will say is we do expect we'll have other people who will be found deceased unfortunately."

Lapointe would not give an estimate of those who were unaccounted for because police were having difficulty fixing a number.

"People are calling in reported loved ones missing, some people are reported two, three times missing by different members of the family," he said.

Railroad officials said a crew parked the train outside of Lac-Megantic and wasn't aboard when several hours later it somehow began rolling down the tracks and derailed around 1 a.m. local time Saturday.

Smoke rises from a devastated portion of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, hours after a train derailment caused explosions and a huge fire on Saturday. Sûreté du Québec

Four tanker cars exploded in a blast that set ablaze multiple buildings in the center of the lakeside town of 6,000 people close to the U.S. border. Up to 2,000 people were forced from their homes in the lakeside town, which is about 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of Maine.

Burning crude spilled into the storm sewers and rose up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire, the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.

As of Saturday afternoon, one person had been confirmed dead, Sgt. Gregory Gomez del Prado of the Quebec Provincial Police told NBC News.

"When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event," town Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said at a news briefing, according to Reuters.

"There are still wagons which we think are pressurized. We're not sure because we can't get close, so we're working on the assumption that all the cars were pressurized and could explode. That's why progress is slow and tough," local fire chief Denis Lauzon told Reuters.

Police officials said they believe at least 50 tanks caught fire. The train had 72 cars and five locomotives.

“It’s dreadful,” Lac-Megantic resident Claude Bedard told the CBC. “It’s terrible. We’ve never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.”

The blast ruptured a water main, forcing the town to bring in tankers for drinking water, Reuters reported.

The Canadian Red Cross said it had set up an information center at a local high school, Polyvalente Montignac. Over 300 people has already reported to the facility, the Red Cross said. The will be set up as a shelter at least through Saturday night, according to Red Cross director of communications Myrian Marotte.

“We will provide shelter, food, clothes if needed, and moral support,” Marotte said.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which operates the rail line, said in a statement released Saturday evening that it had received reports of "a number of fatalities and injuries."

Police are working to locate any missing persons before investigating the cause of the derailment.

“There was a bar in the area open at the time of the accident. We know from the witnesses, that some of them were able to get out and escape the fire, others, they were with people that are still missing. We don’t know what happened to them,” Gomez del Prado said.

Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, told Reuters that an engineer had parked the train outside 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," Burkhardt told Reuters.

NBC News’ Ian Johnston, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. The derailment sparked several explosions and forced the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press via AP