Railway blames firefighters in Canada train disaster
LAC-MEGANTIC, Canada - Agence France-Presse
Searchers dig through the rubble for victims of the inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday, July 8, 2013, as firefighter continue to hose down tanker cars to prevent explosions. PhotoPolice said Tuesday they were looking at criminal negligence as the cause of worst train disaster in recent Canadian history, while the US firm involved denied any responsibility.
The death toll rose from 13 to 15 with the discovery of two more bodies after the explosion and inferno produced by the derailment of a train carrying oil near Montreal. Around 40 people are still missing.
Quebec police are looking for "evidence that might allow the filing of criminal charges," said police inspector Michel Forget. He did not specify against whom.
Standing 200 meters (yards) from the scene of the disaster, he said the hypothesis of criminal negligence was "under consideration." Meanwhile the head of the US rail company at the center of the disaster blamed firefighters for the derailment, as investigators combed through smoldering debris for evidence.
"We are very hopeful we will find more bodies," said Forget.
Residents of the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, part of which was flattened by the blast and subsequent inferno, began returning to their homes.
The explosion unleashed a wall of fire that tore through homes and businesses in Lac-Megantic, located east of Montreal near the US border.
The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Edward Burkhardt, accused firefighters of releasing the train's brakes when it was stopped in Nantes, around 13 kilometers (eight miles) 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 towards Lac-Megantic.
By the time the company was informed of the shutdown, the train -- en route from the US 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 had 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 all of the proper procedures.
The 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 told AFP 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.
Investigators from Canada's Transportation Safety Board 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.
He did say the train began rolling moments after firefighters and a company official left the train
unattended on the tracks in Nantes, after extinguishing the locomotive fire.
"The train started to roll without anybody on board," Ross said.
A small area of downtown Lac-Megantic remained closed off Tuesday as the clean-up began, with officials fearing that mopping up machinery could spark a fire in the sewers.