Canadian Manufacturing

Derailed train carrying crude oil incinerates Quebec town

The incident has shone the spotlight on the contentious political debate over oil transportation, and Canada's rapidly expanding oil-by-rail industry

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que.—A devastated town begins the work week today in anything but working order.

In Lac-Megantic, Que., there are fears that the death toll from a weekend rail disaster could surge, with five people already declared dead and about 40 missing.

The incident has shone the spotlight on the contentious political debate over oil transportation, and Canada’s rapidly expanding oil-by-rail industry which has seen a stunning 28,000-per-cent increase over the past five years.

The town enters its work week with dozens of businesses, and numerous homes, destroyed.

A grocery store, a dollar store, and a popular downtown bar are gone. So is the municipal library. There’s a no-go zone around city hall and a main pharmacy.

After viewing the devastation in the town yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened the downtown of Lac-Megantic to a ”war zone.”

The search for victims in the charred debris has been hampered by the fact two of the train’s cars continued to burn Sunday morning, creating concerns of other potentially fatal explosions.

Businesses and homes leveled

About 30 buildings were destroyed, including Le Musi-Cafe bar, where partygoers were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.

Multiple blasts that night—over a span of several hours—sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

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In terms of financial aid, Harper said there is a formula that calculates the federal response for events like this.

When asked about railway safety concerns, Harper said it was too early to discuss causes.

“We don’t have a lot of the facts, and it would really not be responsible to comment without all the facts,” Harper said.

The prime minister said the federal Transportation Safety Board, and also the police, would be investigating. Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.

Harper promised to draw lessons from the TSB conclusions to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.

“We will conduct a very complete investigation,” Harper said, “and we will act on the recommendations.”

long-ranging implication

On Sunday the railway, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said the locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train.

It said he had locked the brakes before leaving the train.

That shutdown ”may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the statement said.

”As mentioned above, we don’t have complete information concerning this incident, but will co-operate with government authorities as they continue their investigation.”

The president of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., had said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening into town.

There might have been warning signs hours before the disaster.

Witnesses in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before breaking loose, said Sunday that they had seen sparks and a cloud of diesel smoke as it came to a stop a few hours before the derailment.

Lac-Megantic’s fire chief said that Nantes firefighters had answered a call about a fire aboard the locomotive less than three hours before the train rumbled into Lac-Megantic.

Federal TSB officials said they planned to interview all possible participants as part of what they called a “360-degree,” top-to-bottom, investigation.

They said they had retrieved a so-called “black box” from the train Sunday.

-With files by Andy Blatchford and Peter Rakobowchuk

Check back for more updates to come on this developing story

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