Investigators say they’ve recovered the “black box” that should help determine what happened before a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a Quebec town, killing at least five people.
The train with 72 carloads of crude oil crashed and burst into flames early Saturday near the center of Lac-Megantic, in the southeastern part of the province, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people, police said. Forty people remain unaccounted for and a criminal investigation is under way.
“We have examined the locomotive, we have verified all the mechanisms on it, we recovered a copy of the famous black box,” Ed Belkaloul, manager of eastern region rail operations for Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, said at a televised press briefing Sunday. Investigators also found a brake detection unit that can also give information, he said.
The crash is the latest in a series of accidents involving oil on rails as Canadian producers turn to shipping crude by train, with construction of pipelines such as the Keystone XL conduit to the Gulf Coast delayed by environmental and regulatory concerns. TransCanada Corp. applied to build Keystone XL five years ago and the Obama administration initially rejected the project in January last year.
While Montreal, Maine & Atlantic has not completed its own investigation, the company said in a statement that the train, which was parked at a station outside the town, was shut down after the engineer left. This “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the company, a short-line carrier owned by closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, said.
The black box, officially known as a locomotive event recorder, captures information including throttle position, speed, time, and brake pressure, said Donald Ross, who is leading the TSB’s investigation. Asked about the railway’s statement, Ross said “the manner in which the train was secured and both air brakes and hand brakes, we will be looking very strongly at that.”
Firefighters were finally able to extinguish the flames Sunday, fire chief Denis Lauzon said. More than 100 firefighters battled the blaze, he said earlier.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the destruction in Lac-Megantic as “like a war zone” after touring the site Sunday afternoon. The town of about 6,000 lies about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, and 10 miles from the U.S. border with Maine.
“This is a very big disaster in human terms,” Harper said at a press conference. “This is an enormous area, 30 buildings completely destroyed and for all intents and purposes incinerated. There isn’t a family here that hasn’t been affected by this.”
Harper said it was too early to apply blame or to discuss financial assistance from the federal government. There are laws that govern how funding is distributed in disasters such as this, and Harper said he’ll work with Industry Minister Christian Paradis to determine next steps.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said it has a dozen representatives in Lac-Megantic, and is cooperating with government authorities.
“A big fire like this with enormous damage and many dead, Quebec police must investigate,” Lt. Michel Brunet, a spokesman with the Surete du Quebec provincial police, said at a news conference in Lac-Megantic Sunday. “That’s why it’s become a crime scene. Investigators will continue to work and meet with families.”
“You’ve seen the fire, you can deduct the state the bodies are in,” Brunet said. Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman with the coroner’s office, said the team has deployed a multiple-victim unit that has not been used in at least five years.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s main opposition New Democratic Party, criticized the Conservative government’s handling of an increase in crude-by-rail shipments.
“We are seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail, and there are attendant dangers involved in that,” Mulcair said on CTV television. “We are watching a magnificent little village being burned to the ground by toxic products that were being transported through it.”
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train had five locomotive units when it derailed at about 1:15 a.m. local time, the company said in a statement Saturday.
“We have always been aware of the issue of trains passing through our city,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said. “But we’re not the only city where trains go through downtown. Do we say we didn’t have concerns? That’s a lie. What we have demanded is the railway company to observe the rules of maintenance.”
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic was carrying crude to Irving Oil Corp.’s 298,800-barrel-a-day Saint John refinery in New Brunswick, according to a statement on Irving’s website. Joseph McGonigle, vice president of sales and marketing at the train company, did not immediately return an e-mail or phone call.
A Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. train car carrying petroleum diluent derailed on a buckling bridge over the Bow River that runs through downtown Calgary during flooding last month. A Canadian Pacific train derailed March 27 in Minnesota and another near Jansen in Saskatchewan in May, both spilling crude oil.
Ed Greenberg, a Canadian Pacific spokesman, declined to comment on shipping oil by rail. Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Rail World Inc., didn’t immediately return telephone messages left at his office Sunday.
Roy-Laroche said crews were able to repair a “major leak” in a water main to maintain access to drinking water for residents. Even so, the town ordered residents to boil drinking water for at least 5 minutes as a precaution.
The locomotive engineer was not on the train when it derailed, Montreal Maine & Atlantic, said in a statement. The train was stopped and tied down by the engineer for a crew change shortly before midnight Friday night at a station almost seven miles west of Lac-Megantic, the company said. The engineer went to a hotel and the train moved downhill to where it derailed.
The explosions and fires were concentrated in an area about 1 square kilometer (0.39 square mile), and many buildings have been affected, said Sergeant Gregory Gomez del Prado, a spokesman with the Quebec police in Montreal. Most evacuees have been sent to stay with relatives, he said. Some people were sent to a nearby school, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter, officials said.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic is working with police and fire services to investigate the accident, Gomez del Prado said. The company owns 510 route miles of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec and employs about 170 people, according to its website. It operates 15 trains daily with a fleet of 26 locomotives.