A train carrying crude oil derailed overnight in the heart of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec's Eastern Townships, sparking a major fire that led to the evacuation of 1,000 people from their homes.

Witnesses reported between four and six explosions overnight in the town of about 6,000 people. The derailment happened at about 1 a.m. ET, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

It is not yet known if there are any casualties, but according to Radio-Canada 60 people have been reported missing.

'Total mayhem'

Zeph Kee, who lives about 30 minutes outside of Lac-Mégantic, said he saw a huge fireball coming from the city's downtown early Saturday morning.

He described one of the local bars, where people were enjoying their drinks on the outside patio at the time of the explosion. That bar is now gone, Kee said.

Kee said several buildings and homes were flattened by the blast.

Watch the explosion

"It was total mayhem … people not finding their kids," he said.

Isabelle Aller, who was visiting the area, says she has been calling her friends ever since the explosion, and they haven't answered their phones.

"The more time that passes, the more we are worried," she said.

Aller says after the first explosion, some people went to the scene to see what was going on.

Several explosions followed afterwards.

Mayor holds back tears

The teary-eyed mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Colette Roy-Laroche, said emergency services are doing everything possible to deal with the crisis.

"We have deployed all resources to ensure that we can support our citizens," she said.

'It's terrible. We've never seen anything like it.'—Claude Bédard, Lac-Mégantic resident

A spokesperson for Quebec's Environment Ministry says 73 rail cars filled with crude oil were involved. At least four of the cars exploded, sending a huge cloud of thick, black smoke into the air.

The fire, which can be seen for several kilometres, has spread to a number of homes. Authorities say some 30 buildings were affected.

"It's dreadful," said Lac-Mégantic resident Claude Bédard. "It's terrible. We've never seen anything like it. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone."

Firefighters called in from U.S.

More than 100 firefighters, some as far away as Sherbrooke, Que., and the United States, were on the scene early Saturday morning to bring the flames under control.

A large but as-yet undetermined amount of fuel is also reported to have spilled into the Chaudière River. Some residents say the water has turned an orange colour.

lac mégantic, quebec

The derailed train belongs to Montreal Maine & Atlantic, which owns more than 800 kilometres of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick, according to the company's website.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation. A spokesperson for Quebec provincial police said it is still too early to say what caused it.

Experts from Environment Quebec are working to determine whether the smoke poses any danger to people.

  • Aerial view of the fire in Lac Mégantic. A train carrying crude oil derailed sparking a major explosion and fire that led to the evacuation of about 1,000 people from their homes. (Sûreté du Québec)
  • People watch the explosion across the water (Radio-Canada)

With files from The Canadian Press