By Faith Karimi and Umaro Djau
(CNN) — At least three people were killed after a runaway train exploded and leveled part of a Canadian town, the Quebec provincial police said.
The tanker train also destroyed an unknown number of buildings in the tiny lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
“It’s like the town has been cut by a knife,” Sgt. Gregory Gomez del Prado told CNN affiliate CBC. Authorities declined to provide an exact number of people missing.
Its engineer stopped for the night and “tied down” the train 7 miles away from the town before he checked into a motel Saturday night, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said in a statement. The train had stopped for a crew change.
A little more than an hour later, it slipped downhill into the town, the company said. The runaway train, which was pulling more than 70 tankers of crude oil, then derailed, leveling the downtown.
“Railway personnel were able to pull 13 carloads intact from the site at the rear of the train,” the statement said. “We extend heartfelt condolences to those residents of Lac-Megantic who have lost their homes and businesses, and particularly those who have suffered injuries and lost loved ones.”
The inferno engulfed nearby homes and sent thick plumes shooting into the night sky. Authorities evacuated more than a third of the town of 6,000 people, most from the center of the town and a home for the elderly.
As authorities worked to get more details, residents of the scenic town grappled with the loss.
“What I will say is we do expect we’ll have other people who will be found deceased, unfortunately,” Lt. Guy Lapointe, a spokesman for Quebec provincial police, told the affiliate.
“We also expect that down the line the number of people who are reported missing, with regards to people that who have actually lost their lives, will be much higher in the sense that there will be more people reported missing than people actually found dead.”
More than 16,000 people have joined a Facebook page to help people connect with their loved ones in the town. Locals and outsiders have posted desperate notes to try to figure out where their friends and family were on the night of the crash.
Residents told the CBC they have never seen anything like it.
“It’s dreadful,” Claude Bedard said. “It’s terrible. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.”
Emergency services are working overnight to deal with the crisis.
“We have deployed all resources to ensure that we can support our citizens,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said.
Firefighters from the United States are helping fight the blaze. Five trucks deployed from Franklin County, Maine.
CNN’s Joe Sterling, Pierre Meilhan, Darrell Calhoun, Jake Carpenter, Ben Brumfield, Dave Alsup and Deanna Hackney contributed to this report.