Two people have died and 17 were injured in an explosion and fire at an industrial plant in Sherbrooke.
The powerful blast Thursday was heard across the city and in neighbouring suburbs and produced a thick, dark cloud of toxic smoke.
The explosion occurred in Quebec's Eastern Townships at the Sherbrooke processing plant belonging to Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc., which produces health products.
Authorities say the two victims were found in the rubble of the plant. Several people suffered serious injuries, including five with severe burns.
First responders arriving at the plant saw a scene of devastation as workers fled for safety.
Firefighters probed the tangled building carefully, looking for potential victims as they battled the blaze.
"We've got people injured inside, we've got people injured outside," said Martin Carrier, a Sherbrooke police spokesman. "Some were walking, helped by another. It was a chaotic scene. Pretty tough."
The Sherbrooke blaze was potent enough that smoke kept drifting up for hours, even after fire crews had contained the flames, while an acrid stench continued to hover in the air.
The plant lay in ruins. The only walls that remained standing were scorched black by the flames.
"Just looking at the damage to the building, you can see it was probably very violent," said Gaetan Drouin, head of the fire service.
"Even before the 911 calls came in (one fire station) already had many firefighters on the way. They set off the alarm bells just from seeing the plume of smoke that shot up into the sky."
All 65 of the Neptune company employees were accounted for. In the minutes following the blaze, several people were feared to be missing, but they were later found.
Fears about toxic smoke stemmed from the plant's 15,000-litre reserve of acetone, a flammable substance consumed by the fire.
When ingested, acetone can cause irritation. However, local health officials played down the toxic threat, suggesting people might potentially experience headaches or nausea but little else because of the smoke.
Environment Quebec said it was more concerned about the possibility of soil or water contamination than of the risk associated with breathing the air near the blast site.
It's unclear what caused the explosion. There was at least one large blast followed by a series of smaller ones.
The Laval-based company announced plans last year to expand its Sherbrooke facility. The federal government supported the project with an interest-free loan and Quebec provided a grant.
Copyright 2012 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited