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The wreckage of a train is pictured after an explosion in Lac Megantic July 6, 2013. Several people were missing after four tank cars of petroleum products exploded in the middle of a small town in the Canadian province of Quebec early on Saturday in a fiery blast that destroyed dozens of buildings.MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

The locomotive of the 73-car train that devastated a wide swath of Lac-Mégantic, Que., had been ablaze in the hours before it careened off its track and exploded, according to fire officials in the lakeside tourist town and the nearby town of Nantes.

Lac-Mégantic Fire Chief Denis Lauzon and Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert told The Globe and Mail that fire crews had been dispatched to the train around 11:30 p.m. ET Friday when it was stopped in Nantes, about 12 kilometres northwest of Lac-Mégantic, in response to a fire that had broken out on board.

Mr. Lambert described the fire as being confined to the train's locomotive. He said it had been extinguished by midnight and that firefighters believed the scene was secure.

Diane Lavigne, who was visiting her brother-in-law's home in Nantes across the road from the railroad, recalled a loud screeching sound emanating from the tracks between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Friday.

It was not immediately clear what role that fire may have played in the crash and subsequent explosions that killed at least five people and possibly scores more in Lac-Mégantic.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair flew into Lac-Mégantic Sunday morning and attended the noon Sûreté du Québec press conference. Earlier in the morning, he had inspected the Lac-Mégantic rail lines with a rail expert who volunteered his help.

Asked about the train company's slow response to the derailment, Mr. Mulcair replied: "I think that says it all."

"Your first obligation should be to help out," he said.

"A more active response would have been expected," he later added.

Christophe Journet, a spokesman for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train had stopped in Nantes for a routine shift change and that the conductor had confirmed the train's brakes and safety system were functional before he left the locomotive for a local hotel.

A replacement crew was slated to tend to the train later in the night. But sometime before 1 a.m. ET Saturday, the train's load of cars, which included tankers carrying petroleum, began rolling downhill toward the lakeside town of about 6,000.