Quebec Probes Explosion for Crime as Railroad Criticized

Police are investigating possible crimes in Canada’s worst rail disaster in 27 years as Quebec Premier Pauline Marois criticized the railway’s response to the crash that left as many as 60 people dead or missing.

Marois, who said she will visit the town of Lac-Megantic in southeastern Quebec tomorrow, said there were “serious gaps” in the communications response from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. The fact that Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of closely held Rail World Inc. which owns the railway, is only arriving in Lac-Megantic today is wrong, she told reporters today in Quebec City.

“I find the attitude of the CEO to be deplorable,” she said.

The death toll from the explosion that tore through the downtown of Lac-Megantic in the early morning of July 6 stands at 15 and about 45 others are missing, Surete du Quebec provincial police Chief Inspector Michel Forget told reporters in Lac-Megantic today. Police have not released a list of the missing amid reports that a bulletin with names has been distributed, he said.

“The numbers will fluctuate,” Forget said, when asked if the estimates of dead and missing may go higher than 60. “It will go up or it will go down.”

An unmanned Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil crashed about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal. It’s the country’s most lethal rail disaster since a collision between a Canadian National Railway freight train and a VIA Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alberta killed 23 people in February 1986.

Criminal Acts

“There are pieces that might lead us to believe that there are certain facts that might come to criminal acts,” Forget said yesterday. “Criminal negligence might be one of the leads that we are looking at.”

No criminal charges have been laid and police are not considering terrorism as a factor, Forget said today. If charges are laid, they will be done by federal prosecutors, he said.

As police and rail safety authorities accelerated their investigation into how the train moved from its parking spot outside the neighboring town of Nantes before barreling into Lac-Megantic, incinerating about 30 buildings, the chief executive officer of the railway said his company would no longer leave trains unattended overnight.

New Procedures

“We’re going to tighten up our procedures,” Burkhardt, 74, CEO of Rail World Inc., which owns Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said in an interview yesterday in his office in Chicago. “I expect there will be a push to tighten up regulation as well. I support that.”

Burkhardt, who is also chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said he was reluctantly accepting police protection for a visit to Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border today.

“I’ve gotten a whole bunch of hate mail,” he said. “‘Rot in hell.’ ‘Don’t come up here, we’re waiting for you.’”

Burkhardt isn’t aware of any criminal probe into the railroad or its employees, Cathy Aldano, the company’s vice president of research and administration, said by telephone last night.

Quebec police spokesman Forget declined to say whether they have met or plan to meet with Burkhardt today.

Burkhardt had said firefighters responding to a fire on the train’s locomotive after the engineer left for the night may have switched it off, causing the air brakes to release.

Firefighter Response

Firefighters yesterday rejected any suggestion they may have inadvertently caused the train to break free.

“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said on CBC TV. Municipal employees, including firefighters, have been asked not to speak to media, a spokeswoman for Nantes municipal civil security said, who declined to give her name.

Burkhardt, speaking to reporters at Montreal’s airport last night on his way to Lac-Megantic, said that while his company has some responsibility for the crash, he denies it has full responsibility.

Government officials at an Ottawa press conference yesterday said it was “rare” for a railway to leave its train unattended on a main line.

“It’s not something that you will see a lot,” said Luc Bourdon, director general of rail safety with Transport Canada. “Usually the crew change happens on the spot. It’s pretty rare that they’ll leave a train like that.”

Hand Brakes

Doing so didn’t violate any rules, he said.

Regulations specify engineers must apply sufficient handbrakes to pass a “push-pull” test that ensures parked trains don’t move, Transport Canada’s Bourdon said. There are no specific rules for the number and amount of hand brakes used, he said.

Investigators will examine the design of the 111-class cars carrying the crude oil, as well as the operator’s procedures, and whether the train should have been parked where it was, Donald Ross, lead investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board, said yesterday.

Regular Inspections

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic underwent “regular” inspections, Gerard McDonald, assistant deputy minister for safety and security at Transport Canada told reporters at the briefing in Ottawa.

Regulators have inspected 514 miles of the company’s tracks, 37 crossings and 20 locomotives over the past year, Bourdon, said.

Some residents are angry at what they see as a lack of visibility by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic after the disaster. “The company hasn’t spoken to the community directly,” said Jean Duchesne, a Lac-Megantic resident, who was filming the disaster site with his iPad. “They haven’t taken the time, this isn’t good for them. It’s tragic, the downtown is ruined, the water is ruined.”

Sophie Charest lost her aunt in the explosion and fire. “My aunt has died,” Charest said, standing in front of the shop where she works, just blocks away from where her aunt’s lingerie store stood a few days ago. “We are sad and angry,”

Marois today announced C$60 million ($57 million) in aid for the community, with immediate payments of C$1,000 to each citizen affected by the disaster. Quebec will give C$25 million in immediate aid to the local community, C$25 million to the town to rebuild and create a C$10 million fund for local firms to invest in new businesses.

“We are telling the citizens of Lac-Megantic, you can count on us,” she said.