Charred buildings, blackened bodies amid runaway train debris

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Blackened buildings and bodies burned into charred debris are all that remain at the heart of the small Quebec town where an oil-laden runaway train derailed and exploded a day ago.

"All we'll find will be their teeth," lamented one firefighter mobilized to battle the inferno that erupted, of the scores of people still reportedly missing.

Four bodies were found Sunday morning, bringing the official death toll from the disaster to five.

At a press conference announcing the discovery of two of the bodies, police said even the gender of the victims was unidentifiable from the charred remains.

Firefighters are still working to douse blazes in at least two of the train cars that crashed, delaying search operations in downtown Lac-Megantic, where the spectacular crash saw flames shoot into the sky around 1:20 am (0520 GMT) Saturday.

Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed, and some 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

The train -- 72 tanker cars loaded with crude oil pulled and pushed by five locomotives -- left Montreal, 250 kilometers to the west, and was heading to the port of St. John on Canada's Atlantic coast.

Instead, its final destination was this picturesque resort town of 6,000 residents in a corner of the Appalachia mountains near the border with the US state of Maine.

In this region of thick forests, the sky is normally so clear that US astronomers use the local observatory to peer into the sky.

The town's history has been intimately linked to the rail line since settlers streamed out of train cars in the 19th century as they settled the region.

The town's motto is "from the railway to the Milky Way," said Remi Tremblay, the top editor of L'Echo de Frontenac, the local newspaper.

"I could show you. This motto was on the flags that decorate the main road... but they must have melted," he said.

Tremblay was one of the thousands forced to leave his home, which was near the two-square kilometer (0.8-square mile) area consumed by flames.

In the past years rail traffic has increased significantly. "There were more freight trains -- it was cause for concern," he said.

Dressed in heavy yellow protective gear, the town fire department chief, Denis Lauzon, said that his department wanted information on what was being moved by rail through his town. "But we had yet to present a formal request," Lauzon said.

"A wall of fire"

Shocked by the force of the accident, residents pressed against police barricades seeking even the smallest detail that could help them cope with the disaster.

Rumors of the runaway "ghost train" quickly spread. "It had no driver, it was a unmanned train," a young man told his friends gathered in front of a small grocery store ironically named "Point of Aid."

Returning from an evening of playing bingo in a town just north of Lac-Megantic, Antoinette Paree, 78, remembers seeing "a glimmer, a sort of fire" on the train as it made its way through the night.

Paree arrived home and was looking out from her window, which overlooks the track, when she said she heard "a loud bang -- it lit up the whole house," she said.

Paree ran out to save her life, forgetting her dentures.

The cause of the crash was still unknown, but a spokesman for the Montreal Maine & Atlantic company, Christophe Journet, told AFP the train had been stopped in the neighboring town of Nantes, around 13 kilometers west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.

For an unknown reason, Journet said, the train "started to advance, to move down the slope leading to Lac-Megantic," even though the brakes were engaged.

As a result, "there was no conductor on board" when the train crashed, he said.

Residents gathered on the far shore of Lake Megantic around a large illuminated cross that dominates the view. There, overnight Saturday into Sunday, they watched much of their town go up in flames.

Linda Rodriguez followed the movement of the flames with her binoculars. "That's the pharmacy, our home is 50 meters away on the other side of the road," she said.

Another resident, Mariette Savoie, feared the death toll from the "wall of fire" that engulfed her town will be unbearably high.

"Above all the Main Street shops, were homes," she said.

"All those people who were there were unable to get out."