-- The company also made headlines a month earlier when 22 rail cars derailed near White River, Ontario. Two of the cars leaked about 400 barrels -- almost 17,000 gallons -- of oil, The Globe and Mail in Toronto reported.
-- Canadian Pacific was also involved in a stateside spill in March. Fourteen cars on a milelong, 94-car train derailed in western Minnesota, about 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis, spilling about 30,000 gallons of crude, Reuters reported.
"We're seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail. There are attendant dangers involved in that," Thomas Mulcair, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, told CTV.
Mulcair criticized the government for "cutting transport safety in recent years."
Emile Therien, a former president of the nonprofit Canada Safety Council, added, "In the last 10 years, the railroads really do their own safety thing. There's very little involvement from Transport Canada. Transport Canada's got to get back into the game; there's no doubt about it."
Lebel said railway companies are required by law to ensure the safe operation of their trains. He also said that since 2007, the number of train accidents in Canada has decreased by more than 22%.
The train involved in the Quebec incident was carrying oil from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. According to the Association of American Railroads, Bakken is partially responsible for a dramatic increase in the amount of oil moved via train since 2008.
As U.S. crude production has increased with advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, "much of the recent increases in crude oil output has moved by rail from production areas, such as North Dakota, that are not adequately served by pipelines," according to the AAR, whose members include the major North American freight railroads.
In 2008, the group said, U.S. railroads were carrying about 9,500 rail carloads of crude oil. By 2011, it was 66,000. Last year, it was more than 200,000 carloads. A railcar carries about 700 barrels of oil, with 42 gallons per barrel.
Balls of shooting flames
Witnesses told CBC they heard five or six explosions Saturday in Lac-Megantic. One person saw the train's first oil tanker tip over and yelled "run, run!" as he dashed toward a lake. the flames chased him to the edge of the water.
"The fire was moving so quickly," he said. "We saw balls of fire shooting out onto the water."
One woman told CTV that she got off work at a nearby bar an hour before the accident.
"I have no news from my friends; I haven't heard from any of them," she tearfully told CTV. "I can't say more than that. We're waiting for confirmation."
Families and friends are scrambling to find the missing.
More than 17,000 people have joined a Facebook page to help people connect with their loved ones in the town.
Multiple posts ask about Guy Bolduc, a singer who was performing at Musi-Cafe.
"All of his fans, all over Quebec, but also his fellow singers (of whom I am one) hope to see him again alive!!! Come on my GuyBol, come out of your hiding place," one member wrote.
Residents struggled to absorb what had happened to their small lakeside community.