Police boost number of Quebec disaster missing and dead to 60

Debris from the explosion of a train are seen in Lac Megantic, July 9, 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
Debris from the explosion of a train are seen in Lac Megantic, July 9, 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.
Posted July 10, 2013, at 7:31 a.m.
Last modified July 10, 2013, at 4:36 p.m.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — The number of people dead or missing after an oil-tanker train exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic has risen to 60 from 50, police said on Wednesday, as 200 investigators sifted through the charred wreckage of what they said is a crime scene.

The runaway train derailed and blew up in the middle of the town of 6,000 near the Maine border early on Saturday morning, flattening dozens of buildings in Lac-Megantic’s historic downtown and leaving it looking like a war zone.

“The number of missing persons has changed since our last count. We are up to around 60 persons that have been reported to us as missing,” police spokesman Michel Forget told reporters, noting that the number was changing every day.

As investigators search for clues in what could turn out to be North America’s worst railway disaster since 1989, Quebec police have made it clear that the figure for those missing includes the dead. None of the 15 bodies they have found has been identified and few residents hold out hope that any of the missing will be found alive.

Police are investigating whether the disaster involved foul play or criminal negligence, but Forget deflected questions about possible criminal charges. He said that was a matter for the prosecutor’s office in Quebec, the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province where Lac-Megantic is situated.

There have been no arrests to date, he said.

Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, which owns the track through Lac-Megantic and operated the tanker train, is one of many North American railroads that have vastly stepped up shipments of crude oil as producers seek alternatives to pipelines that have been stretched to capacity by higher output in Canada and North Dakota.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board wants to know if the operator followed proper safety procedures in the hours before the unmanned 72-car train rolled down a hill and slammed into Lac-Megantic.

Ed Burkhardt, the head of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, arrived on Wednesday for a visit. He was due to talk to reporters later in the day.

Burkhardt told public broadcaster Radio-Canada on Tuesday that until the crash, his company’s safety record had been good.

“I think we blew it on this instance. We blew it big time. This is awful. It’s absolutely awful and very emotional to me when there are deaths and people out of their homes,” he said.

The incident forced about 2,000 people, roughly a third of the town’s population, to leave their homes and seek shelter in local schools or with friends and family. Around 1,200 have since been allowed to return to their homes, some of which are still without power or water.

“After that tragedy, after watching that fire burn half the downtown, we are happy to be back home,” said Denis Leveille, 57. “But we’re not really settled in, because we don’t have electricity right now. Our only power is that yellow cord there,” he said, pointing to an extension cable running out a front window and across the yard to a neighbor’s house.

“We need that for the fridge and the coffee maker — so we have coffee in the morning and beer at night.”

Lac-Megantic is about 160 miles east of Montreal and close to the border with Maine and Vermont.

MMA executives have said they believe the train’s air brakes failed after local firefighters shut down the engine on one of its locomotives late on Friday night to put out a fire. At the time the train was parked in the neighboring municipality of Nantes, uphill from Lac-Megantic.

But it is not clear if the train’s engineer set enough hand brakes — which are meant to hold a train in place even if the air brakes fail — before he left the train for a shift change shortly before the fire broke out.

The engineer, named by Canadian media as Tom Harding, lives on a quiet street in Farnham, Quebec, some 90 minutes west of Lac-Magentic, in a two-story stone and vinyl-siding home.

Nobody answered the door at the house on Wednesday.

MMA, which is headquartered in Chicago, has a long history of accidents in Canada, according to Transportation Safety Board data, which shows 129 accidents, including 77 derailments — some of them minor — since 2003. It is one of only two rail companies in Canada that is allowed to operate trains manned by a single engineer.

A TSB official said she could not immediately say how MMA’s accident rate compared with other rail operators in the country.

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