LAC-MEGANTIC, Que.—Everyone missing in the fiery crash of a runaway oil train in Quebec is presumed dead, police told grieving families, bringing the death toll to 50 in Canada’s worst railway catastrophe in almost 150 years.
Meanwhile, attention focused on the CEO of the railway’s parent company, who faced jeers from local residents and blamed the train’s engineer for improperly setting its brakes before the disaster.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois arrived in Lac-Megantic to tour the disaster site a day after officials said that 20 bodies had been found in this burned-out town, and 30 people were missing, presumed dead.
“We informed them of the potential loss of their loved ones,” said Quebec police inspector Michel Forget, who came to an afternoon news briefing from a meeting with families of the dead and missing. “You have to understand that it’s a very emotional moment.”
Edward Burkhardt, the head of the train’s U.S.-based parent company blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down an 11-kilometre incline, derailed and ignited in the centre of Lac-Megantic early July 6.
All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
The crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of rail to transport oil in North America, especially in the booming North Dakota oil fields and Alberta oil sands far from the sea.
The intensity of the explosions and fire made parts of the devastated town too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies days after the disaster.
Only one body had been formally identified, said Genevieve Guilbault of the coroner’s office, and she described efforts to identify the other remains as “very long and arduous work.”
Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., faced jeers from residents and scorn from Quebec’s premier as he made his first visit to the town since the disaster.
Burkhardt said the train’s engineer had been suspended without pay and was under “police control.”
Investigators also had spoken with Burkhardt during his visit, said a police official, Sgt. Benoit Richard.
He did not elaborate.
Until Burkhardt’s visit, the railway company had defended its employees’ actions, but that changed abruptly as the CEO singled out the engineer.
“We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?” Burkhardt said. “He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that’s not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don’t.”
Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec.
Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.
“He’s not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him,” Burkhardt said. “I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges … If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.”