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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Canadian oil train disaster

by  Ian Austen, The New York Times, July 8, 2013

OTTAWA — The Quebec town where runaway railroad tank cars filled with oil derailed and exploded over the weekend still did not know the full extent of the devastation on Monday as dangerous conditions limited the movements of investigators. 

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters. Railroad tank cars lay scattered at the site of the derailment in Lac-Mégantic on Monday. 
The provincial police said they had found eight more bodies in the town, Lac-Mégantic, on Monday, raising the death toll to 13 from the “ghost train” accident, as it has become known, which occurred early Saturday morning. The police also increased the estimate of the missing people, who are presumed to be dead, to 50. 

While fires that raged for much of the weekend were largely under control by Monday, Sgt. Benoît Richard of the provincial police, known as Sûreté du Québec, said much of the site remained so dangerous that officers were able to enter only when accompanied by firefighters.

The accident’s destructiveness also impeded efforts to recover bodies and investigate the cause of the crash. Aerial photos of the popular vacation town showed that much of its downtown had been reduced to little more than ash. Le Musi-Café, a bar near the rail line that was filled with patrons at the time of the derailment, had vanished under a pile of burned and crushed tank cars.

Forensic anthropologists were traveling to the town to assist with the recovery of remains, and the police were asking relatives for razors, hairbrushes and other items belonging to the missing that might provide DNA for identification.

Further delaying the recovery was a declaration of the accident site as a crime scene. Sergeant Richard said that factor had delayed the removal of the remains of the train as the police must document them and gather evidence.

News reports in Quebec indicated that the missing included parents who had been listening to a concert at Musi-Café but never returned to their young children. At least one musician who had been performing at the time of the wreck also was among those missing.

About 1,500 of the town’s 6,000 residents were still unable to return to their homes on Monday, although officials said some might be allowed to return on Tuesday. At least 30 buildings were destroyed.

Police officers and politicians in Lac-Mégantic declined to answer questions about the cause of the derailment. The information void has been filled with sometimes-contradictory accounts.

Denis Lebel, the federal transport minister, said on Monday that the train’s locomotive had passed a safety inspection in the Montreal area early on Friday, but he offered no further details.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which owns the train line, said its engineer had parked the 72-car train late Friday near Nantes, a village about 7.5 miles from Lac-Mégantic, and had left it unattended. About 11:30 p.m., the volunteer Fire Department in Nantes put out a fire in the locomotive.

Patrick Lambert, the chief of the Nantes Fire Department, told reporters that his crew had shut down the locomotive after fighting the fire and had informed the railway about its action.

“The people from M.M.A. told us: ‘That’s great — the train is secure, there’s no more fire, there’s nothing anymore, there’s no more danger,’ ” Mr. Lambert said. “We were given our leave, and we left.”

But in interviews on Monday with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Reuters, Edward Burkhardt, the chairman and chief executive of the railway’s parent company, Rail World, appeared to blame the firefighters for causing the accident by shutting down the train.

Mr. Burkhardt said their action had meant that the train’s brake system gradually lost air pressure, “and an hour or so after the locomotive was shut down, the train rolled away.” He also faulted the Fire Department for not waking up the engineer, who was staying overnight at a hotel in Lac-Mégantic, and taking him to the scene.

Earlier, Mr. Burkhardt, who did not respond to several requests for comment, said the train had been properly secured. Further confusing his account is the fact that since the 19th century, railways in North America have used an air-braking system that applies, rather than releases, freight car brakes as a safety measure when it loses pressure. 

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