Two people were killed as an explosion loud enough to be heard for kilometres ripped through an industrial plant Thursday, triggering a fire that produced a thick, dark cloud of toxic smoke.
The blast and fire sent 19 other people to hospital, some with severe burns. The two victims were found in the rubble of the decimated processing plant.
The incident occurred in Quebec's Eastern Townships at the Sherbrooke facility belonging to Neptune Technologies & Bioressources, which produces health products such as Omega-3 derived from marine life.
The local 911 line was flooded with a record number of calls, authorities said.
Martin Carrier, a Sherbrooke police spokesman, said more than 100 people in Sherbrooke and surrounding suburbs phoned within a minute.
"They heard the explosion," Carrier said. "It was a big noise. A lot of black smoke. You could see it everywhere in the city."
When first responders arrived at the plant, they beheld a scene of devastation as workers fled for safety.
"We've got people injured inside, we've got people injured outside," Carrier said.
"Some were walking, helped by another. It was a chaotic scene," he said. "Pretty tough."
Firefighters probed the tangled building carefully, looking for potential victims. Among the 19 injured, four were transported to a burn unit in Montreal; two were in an intensive-care unit in Sherbrooke; seven were quickly released from hospital; and six were held for observation. The bodies were found later in the day.
It was the first of two major fires Thursday in Quebec.
Hours later, flames were skipping off a rooftop in Old Montreal as emergency crews were called in to deal with a blaze a block away from the famous Notre-Dame Basilica, close to the Montreal La Presse newspaper which had to be evacuated. There were no reports of injuries in the Montreal fire.
But 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.