LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec -- A train carrying crude oil derailed Saturday in eastern Quebec, sparking several explosions and a blaze that destroyed the center of the town of Lac-Megantic and killed at least one person. An unspecified number of people were reported missing.
Witnesses said the eruptions sent residents scrambling through the streets under the intense heat of towering fireballs and a red glow that illuminated the night sky.
Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet confirmed that one person had died. He refused to say how many others might be dead, but said authorities have been told "many" people have been reported missing.
Up to 1,000 people were forced from their homes in the middle of the night in the town, which is about 155 miles east of Montreal and about 10 miles west of the Maine border.
The derailment caused several tanker rail cars to explode in the downtown core, a popular area known for its bars that is often bustling on summer weekend nights. Police said the first explosion tore through the town shortly after 1 a.m.
The fire spread to a number of homes in the lakeside town of 6,000 people, and witnesses said the flames shot up higher than the steeple on a nearby church.
Flames and billowing black smoke could be seen more than 12 hours after the derailment, which involved a 73-car train.
"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," an emotional Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said during a televised news briefing.
The cause of the derailment was not immediately known.
Dozens of residents gathered hours after the explosion at the edge of a wide security perimeter and many feared the worst. About a kilometer down the town's main street, flames danced around a railway tanker that sat at the edge of the road.
"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 was a big explosion. It's a catastrophe. It's terrible for the population." Demers, who fled his home, said the explosion was "like an atomic bomb. It was very hot. . . . Everybody was afraid."
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said a large but undetermined amount of fuel had also spilled into the Chaudiere River. Blanchette said the 73 cars were filled with crude oil, and at least four were damaged by the explosions and fire.
Firefighters from northern Maine were also deployed to the Quebec town, according to a spokesman at the sheriff's office in Franklin County.
The train, reportedly heading toward Maine, belongs to Montreal Maine & Atlantic. According to the railroad's website, the company owns more than 500 miles of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.