Authorities say three people are missing and part of a town north of Montreal has been evacuated after an explosive fire broke out Thursday morning at a fuel distributor.
Sébastien Marcil, the mayor of Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Que., was emotional as he spoke to the media in the afternoon. He said the town was "hit in the heart today."
"It is the uncertainty," the mayor said. "It's the fact that three persons, three citizens, are missing today. Three of our citizens. We're looking for them and we're waiting for answers."
The fire broke out at a Propane Lafortune outlet, a family-run business that distributes propane and other fuels including heating oil.
"We're looking for them and we're waiting for answers," Marcil said. "Almost everyone in town had ties to the Lafortune family."
Fire chief for the Montcalm regional county municipality (MRC), François Thivierge, said the first call came in at 11:17 a.m. and, given the severity of the incident, nearby fire services responded as well — drawing some 50 firefighters to the scene.
But on first assessment, firefighters decided to retreat for fear of explosion and to further investigate the situation with a drone. A few hours later, firefighters moved in, relying mostly on extinguishing foam rather than water, with the hope of of limiting the amount of toxic runoff that would enter the nearby Achigan river.
WATCH | Mayor emotional as he updates public on situation:
Thivierge said provincial police will be responsible for the investigation.
SQ evacuates area
Sûreté du Québec spokesperson Éloïse Cossette said, when the call came in, police established a perimeter one kilometre around the fire.
Cossettee said officers were concerned that a larger explosion could occur because of the presence of other flammable materials on site.
A Propane Lafortune outlet representative, reached at the company's Mascouche outlet, one of four they operate in Quebec, declined an interview request.
Marie-Josée Masson, Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan's general manager, said buildings were being evacuated and residents were being directed toward the town's church.
"The priority now is to know if there are going to be any more explosions," she said. "That's really the priority."
Explosion shook homes, residents say
Residents arriving at the church on Thursday afternoon said they heard and felt an explosion powerful enough to shake their homes. Witnesses described hearing followup blasts that were not as powerful.
Valérie Brisebois, a longtime Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan resident who had to leave her home after the explosion, said she felt the shake of the blast and thought it was a problem with her water pipes.
"I went downstairs in the basement to check and 15 minutes later I noticed there was smoke in the sky," she said.
Karine Lamarche, who lives near the site, said an explosion shook her home late Thursday morning.
"It was shaking, I thought something had fallen on the house,'' she said. It was only later, when she got in her car to pick up her mail, that she rounded the bend toward Propane Lafortune and saw the aftermath.
"I saw the big smoke up in the sky, a lot of fire coming from the ground and going up in the air. There was a lot of black smoke,'' she said.
A spokesperson for the Services Préhospitaliers Laurentides-Lanaudière (SPLL), the ambulance service for the region, said at 1 p.m. its ambulances were unable to approach the fire because it was too dangerous.
WATCH | Quebec explosion could be heard for kilometres:
At around 6:30 p.m., firefighters were still on the scene, working to extinguish the flames. However, authorities reduced the evacuation perimeter to 10 metres. About an hour after that, the flames were extinguished and firefighters began leaving the scene.
Provincial police later said that three people are still missing and the investigation will take several days because of the weather. Most of southern Quebec was hit by a snowstorm Thursday and it is expected to last until Friday.
Police plan to hold a news conference Friday morning to provide further details.
Quebec Public Security Minister François Bonnardel said on Twitter he was aware of the explosion and his thoughts were with the workers
"We are still monitoring the situation closely," he said.
"I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the first responders and all the fire departments involved. Our civil security teams co-ordinate operations with the municipalities concerned."