Explosions Destroy Seven Buildings, Injure Five in Quebec

TROIS-RIVIERES, Que. (CP) -- Screaming residents fled into fire-lit streets Friday as a blaze and explosions claimed one life and destroyed the heart of a neighbourhood on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

"I heard screaming and saw lots of flames on the roofs," said Jacinthe Gaudet, 11, who was awakened by a blast that injured six people and destroyed seven buildings. The body of one woman was later found in the rubble.

"It was very upsetting," Gaudet said as steam rose from remnants of buildings on both sides of the main street in a west-end neighbourhood in Trois-Rivieres in central Quebec.

"I didn't want to remain here, I was really afraid."

Witnesses said they saw fireballs climb as high as 30 metres in the air as at least two explosions were fuelled by natural gas that had leaked into the sewer system.

The incident began before 3 a.m. with a blaze in a pizzeria.

An evacuation of about 30 properties began after Hydro-Quebec workers, called to cut power to the area, smelled gas in the ground below them.

The explosions ignited in the midst of the evacuation, destroying three businesses and eight residential units in the town 130 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

Authorities did not confirm the identity of the victim but Gilles Chouinard said he believes it might have been his sister.

When police were reporting one missing person but before they confirmed a death, Chouinard looked at the rubble where his sister lived and said she's "probably under all that."

"It's a disaster," Chouinard said. "It's indescribable."

The intensity of the blasts awoke residents, many of whom congregated not far from the devastation.

"I never experienced a fire of this size, never," said Andre Dugre, a firefighter for more than 18 years.

He said the damage gutted century-old buildings that can never be replaced and whose disappearance will forever change the community.

Some residents managed to escape the inferno on their own as others were helped by emergency officials and Hydro-Quebec workers.

Three of the six injured were transported to a Quebec City burn unit.

Diane Rioux and Andre Perra were taken to a Trois-Rivieres hospital with first-and second-degree burns after they fled through an opening in their home's second floor when the house split in two as it was lifted from its foundation.

"The bedroom ceiling fell and it created an opening on the second floor and they left the same time as it collapsed," Yvon Fontaine said after he visited his brother-in-law and sister-in-law in hospital.

"It was like a miracle that they were able to escape."

However, several Persian cats died when Rioux's animal shop was consumed by the flames.

Trois-Rivieres fire official Michel Letarte said things could have been a lot worse.

"We could have had some of our people seriously injured or even dead."

About 150 firefighters were called from several neighbouring communities to help contain the damage. By daylight Friday, they were working to ensure the fire had been extinguished before investigators attempted to determine a cause.

"We're going to try to find what caused this explosion but really it's going to be difficult because some houses, when they exploded, there's nothing left."

Gaz Metropolitain spokeswoman Stephanie Trudeau said it wasn't yet clear how natural gas was found leaking into underground sewers or whether it played a role in the initial fire.

She said the Quebec company's last natural-gas explosion occurred in 1998, noting the utility has a network of nearly 10,000 kilometres.

Red Cross officials arrived from Quebec City to help provide temporary housing, clothing and food for those left homeless.