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Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
Head of rail company visits grieving Quebec town
First Published Jul 10 2013 08:57 am • Last Updated Jul 10 2013 11:55 am

Lac-Megantic » The head of the rail company whose runaway oil train set off a fiery explosion that left at least 15 people dead and incinerated 30 buildings was visiting the shell-shocked town in Quebec on Wednesday, as officials upped the number of missing to 45.

Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., was expected a day after police announced they were pursuing a painstaking, wide-ranging criminal investigation of the inferno ignited by the derailment of the oil train that demolished the center of this lakeside town of 6,000.

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Flanked by reporters at Montreal’s Trudeau airport Tuesday evening, Burkhardt suggested firefighters who extinguished an earlier fire on the same train shared some of the blame.

"We have responsibility for this incident. We don’t have total responsibility but we have partial responsibility," Burkhardt said in remarks broadcast on CTV.

At a press conference, shortly before Burkhardt was due to arrive, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company’s response in the wake of the disaster.

"We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public," Marois said.

She also announced a $60-million fund to help victims in Lac-Megantic.

Quebec police inspector Michel Forget announced Wednesday morning that the number of missing had risen to 60, a number that included the 15 bodies recovered so far that have been burnt beyond recognition. Police had earlier put the number of missing at 50.

Forget said the numbers remained in flux as reports of missing people trickled in or people believed to be missing turned out to be alive.

Forget had earlier ruled out terrorism as a cause, but said that an array of other possibilities remain under investigation, including criminal negligence. Other officials have raised the possibility that the train was tampered with before the crash early Saturday.


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"This is an enormous task ahead of us," Forget said. "We’re not at the stage of arrests."

The heart of the town’s central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape — not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks.

On downtown’s main street — Rue de Laval — police positioned a truck near the perimeter of the no-go zone, which prevented news crews from getting direct photo and video views of the search operations being conducted by some 200 officers.

Police officials left no doubt that the hunt for the missing people was taxing — they said two officers were withdrawn from the sector because of worries about their physical condition.

"This is a very risky environment," said Quebec Provincial Police Sgt. Benoit Richard. "We have to secure the safety of those working there. We have some hotspots on the scene. There is some gas."

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) before jumping the tracks at 63 mph (101 kph) in Lac-Megantic, in eastern Quebec near the Maine border, investigators said. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.

Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train’s 18-minute journey because they didn’t know it was happening themselves, Transportation Safety Board officials said. Such warning systems are in place on busier lines but not on secondary lines, said TSB manager Ed Belkaloul.

At the center of the destruction is the Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was filled at the time of the explosion, which also forced about 2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes. By Tuesday, only about 800 were still barred from returning to their houses, though residents were cautioned to boil tap water before drinking it.

Efforts continued to stop waves of crude oil spilled in the disaster from reaching the St. Lawrence River, the backbone of the province’s water supply.

Investigators searching for a cause of the accident are looking closely at the fire that happened on the train less than an hour before it got loose while parked in the nearby town of Nantes.

The train’s engine was shut down — standard operating procedure dictated by the train’s owners, Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said. Burkhardt suggested that shutting off the locomotive to put out the fire might have disabled the brakes.

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