As the death toll from a train that exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec more than doubled to 13, residents faced an agonizing wait to identify the remains of their loved ones amid growing controversy over the cause of the disaster.
Thirteen people are now confirmed dead, up from five yesterday, Lt. Michel Brunet, a spokesman with the Surete du Quebec provincial police, said on Canadian television yesterday. Brunet also raised the number of missing including confirmed deaths to 50 from 40.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil crashed and burst into flames early Saturday near the center of Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, and 10 miles from the U.S. border with Maine.
“It’s going to be a challenge to make positive identifications because the fire was so intense,” Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman for the Quebec coroner’s office, said by phone from the town last night. “We are only at the beginning of the investigation. We are spending all our time looking for bodies at the site.”
Guilbault said the coroner’s office has asked families to bring in hats, razors, toothbrushes and hairbrushes to help with the identification of the bodies using hair samples.
With the flames extinguished and only residual smoke visible, police and investigators moved in to step up their inquiry into how the unmanned locomotive moved from its parking spot outside Nantes, the next town over, before barreling into Lac-Megantic.
Edward Burkhardt, president of closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, which owns Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said yesterday that local firefighters, who put out an earlier fire on the train, may have unknowingly switched off the air brakes after the engineer had secured the train and left for the night.
“The shut down of the locomotive caused the brakes to gradually release,” Burkhardt said on CBC TV.
A brief investigation his company officials did of the site of the crash before it was locked down by police showed that circuit breakers were turned off which would have shut down the engine, releasing the train’s air brakes, he said. Burkhardt, didn’t return telephone messages left yesterday at his office seeking comment on the Quebec crash.
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert denied his team did anything wrong.
“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” he said on CBC TV.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said in a statement July 7 the train was shut down after the engineer left for the evening. 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 Rail World said in a statement.
The company earlier said the train had been tied down by the engineer before he left as part of a crew change.
The remains of oil tankers are visible at the end of the town’s main street where houses are burnt to their foundations, surrounded by piles of red bricks. About 30 buildings were destroyed in the blaze that left the downtown a smoldering ruin.
“People are angry, sad, frustrated,” said Guillaume Comtois, a 31-year-old carpenter who lost a close friend in the explosion and said he “knew pretty much everyone” who hung out at the cafes and clubs downtown. “Sadness, because we lost a lot of friends, and frustration because it’s not supposed to happen. There’s been a human mistake, it should have been prevented.”
Richard Fournier, like many of his neighbors, wants answers. “It was an accident, but if there are people responsible somewhere,” residents deserve to know, he said.
While still below the average pace of the past five years, the number of railway accidents in Canada increased to 439 in the first five months of the year, a 7.9 percent increase from 2012, largely due to derailments, according to data provided by the Transport Safety Board. Accidents involving dangerous goods rose to 57 in the first five months of the year from 48 a year earlier.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s main opposition New Democratic Party, criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for cutting spending for rail safety.
“We’re seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail,” Mulcair told reporters July 7. “There are attendant dangers involved in that, and at the same time the Conservative government is cutting transport safety in Canada, cutting back the budgets in that area.”
According to estimates of departmental spending plans, Canada has forecast C$33.8 million in spending on rail safety for the fiscal year that began April 1, down from C$36.9 million the previous fiscal year.
“Our government has not cut any inspectors,” Denis Lebel, Canada’s Minister of Transport, said yesterday in a media briefing in Lac-Megantic, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We have taken concrete action to increase rail safety. In fact, we have invested over C$100 million in rail safety since 2009.”
The government toughened penalties for rule-breakers while railway companies are required by law to ensure the safe operations of their trains, and fines have been raised 400 percent, Lebel said.
“We do not yet know the cause of this tragic derailment,” Lebel said. “We do know that a Transport Canada inspector inspected the locomotive involved in this incident just the day before it happened, on July 5, and found no deficiencies.”
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.
Liziane Bédard lives right beside the tracks about 5 minutes away from the blast site.
“The train came down the track very very fast, like whoosh,” the 16-year-old said still in her pajamas after being evacuated from her home. “It doesn’t normally go that fast, it was supposed to slow down.”
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train was carrying crude to Irving Oil Corp.’s 298,800-barrel-a-day refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, according to a statement on Irving’s website.