LAC-MEGANTIC, QUEBEC – The U.S. rail company at the center of Canada’s worst train disaster in recent history on Tuesday blamed firefighters for the deadly derailment, as police indicated they believe it could be a case of criminal negligence.
The death toll from the explosion on Saturday of the runaway train in the middle of the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic meanwhile rose to 15, with about three dozen others still reported as missing.
“We are very hopeful we will find more bodies,” said provincial police Inspector Michel Forget, as investigators combed through the debris of homes and businesses in the town, east of Montreal near the U.S. border.
Forget said negligence — not a deliberate act of setting the train loose — could have played a role, but that the criminal probe would proceed along with a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation.
He however did not offer any details about the police probe.
The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), Edward Burkhardt, accused firefighters of releasing the train’s brakes when it was stopped in Nantes, around 13 km west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.
Those firefighters had been called to douse a small fire in one of the train’s five locomotives.
Burkhardt told the daily La Presse that Nantes firefighters “showed up and put out the fire with a fire extinguisher. To do that they also shut down the first locomotive’s engines. This is what led to the disaster.”
He explained that the train’s brakes were powered by the locomotive and would have disengaged when it was shut down, causing the driverless train to start rolling downhill toward Lac-Megantic.
By the time the company was informed of the shutdown, the train — en route from the U.S. state of North Dakota to a refinery in Canada’s eastern New Brunswick province — had already reached the town, he said.
MMA trains will no longer be left unattended, he vowed, noting that the company has also launched an internal investigation.
Nantes fire Chief Patrick Lambert however dismissed Burkhardt’s accusations, saying the 12 firefighters who responded to the locomotive engine fire followed proper procedures.
According to a TSB timeline, moments after the firefighters extinguished the locomotive fire and left with an MMA official, the unattended Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early Saturday and sped downhill in the darkness nearly 11 km before jumping the tracks at 101 kph near the Maine border. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.
Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the train’s 18-minute journey because they didn’t know it was happening themselves, Transportation Safety Board officials said Tuesday. Such warning systems are not in place on secondary rail lines, said TSB manager Ed Belkaloul.
The subsequent fire leveled more than four blocks, including 30 buildings, and forced about 2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents to flee. Many of those people began returning home Tuesday.
“I know there is a lot of anger” in the small community, Burkhardt told Canada’s public broadcaster CBC.
The MMA chief had been expected in Lac-Megantic later Tuesday, but now said he would visit in the coming days, adding: “I hope I’m not going to get shot.”
Furious residents said that a visit from Burkhardt was already too late.
“Is he scared?” one 53-year-old man asked.
He must “at least apologize to us — that would calm things down a bit,” said another resident.
“We want to cooperate with the town and with the residents in helping them getting back on their feet, accepting claims for their loss and assuring that something like this never happens again,” Burkhardt told CBC.
“We’re going to try to make people whole as best as we can,” he said.
TSB investigators said they will focus on the train’s brakes, as well as MMA’s policies for securing stopped trains.
They will also look at possible inadequacies of the tanker cars for transporting flammable materials, and what caused the original locomotive fire in Nantes.
“It’s very important to know exactly who did what — who was there, what did they do,” TSB lead investigator Donald Ross told reporters, adding it was too soon to assign blame.
Luc Bourdon, director general of rail safety for Transport Canada, told a press conference that MMA had undergone regular joint safety inspections by Canadian and U.S. authorities, and that the derailed train itself had been inspected on the Friday just prior to the disaster.
“It was subject to the same number of inspection as any other railway,” he said.
Bourdon noted it was “very unusual” for trains to be left unattended unless parked on a sider.
Transport Canada, the government’s transportation agency, said Tuesday there are no rules against leaving an unlocked, unmanned, running locomotive and its flammable cargo on a main rail line uphill from a populated area. Officials also said there is no limit on how many oil-filled, single-hull tank cars a train can pull.
He also highlighted that since 2007, the number of train accidents in Canada was down 23 percent and derailments fell 26 percent, while new railway rules requiring increased safety audits had come into effect on May 1.
The Quebec government said the risk of an oil slick from the accident reaching the Saint Lawrence River was now small.