LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) — 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.
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.
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.
“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Police officials left no doubt that the hunt for the missing people was taxing – they said two officers were withdrawn from the sector because of worries about their physical condition.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.
“The train had the engine shut down by the firemen, they didn’t do that for malicious purposes by it’s what happens,” Burkhardt told reporters at the Montreal airport. “The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel and taken him to the scene with them. But it’s easy to say what should have happened. We’re dealing with what happened.”
Lambert defended the fire department, saying that the blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes and that’s when firefighters’ involvement ended.
The accident has thrown a spotlight on MMA’s safety record. Over the past decade, the company has consistently recorded a much higher accident rate than the national average in the U.S., according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
Last year, for instance, the railroad had 36.1 accidents per million miles traveled by its trains. The national average for 2012 was 14.6.
Before the Lac-Megantic accident, the company had 34 derailments since 2003, according to the federal agency. Over that period, the company was involved in five accidents that had reportable damage of more than $100,000.
The severity of those incidents, however, is difficult to determine from the federal agency’s 10-year data overviews on railroad safety. But before the weekend accident, incidents involving the company’s trains had resulted in just one death. That 2006 accident involved a vehicle that struck a moving train at a highway crossing.
Burkhardt said the figures were misleading.
“This is the only significant mainline derailment this company has had in the last 10 years. We’ve had, like most railroads, a number of smallish incidents, usually involving accidents in yard trackage and industry trackage,” he told the CBC.
Nonetheless, Burkhardt predicted the accident would lead to changes in the way railways operate, and indicated that MMA would no longer leave loaded trains unattended, a practice he said was standard in the industry.
The tanker cars involved in the crash were the DOT-111 type – a staple of the American freight rail fleet whose flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Experts say the DOT-111’s steel shell is so thin that it is prone to puncture in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that can catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.