The body count after an oil train derailed in a Quebec town rose to 20 people Wednesday with 30 others missing now presumed dead, and the railway's chief said a train engineer is "under police control" for the tragedy.
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, was met by jeers from residents and cries of "murderer" as he spoke at an impromptu news conference in Lac-Megantic on Wednesday in which he said the engineer had been suspended without pay, CBC TV reported.
“It was our employee that was responsible for setting the brakes on the train … That employee is under investigation and is not working,” Burkhardt said, CBC reported.
Burkhardt said the engineer was originally believed when he said all 11 hand brakes had been applied on the train, but now there are doubts about the worker's story.
“We think that he applied some handbrakes, the problem is that he didn’t apply enough of them,” Burkhardt said, according to CBC.
The engineer parked the train late Friday night, investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada have said, then went to sleep at a nearby hotel.
A fire was reported on the train later that night by another employee, according to the TSB. After firefighters left the scene the train started to roll downhill, derailed and exploded in a huge fireball Saturday in the town of 6,000 near the Maine border.
The move to suspend the engineer came on a day police reported the confirmed death toll in the tragedy had risen to 20 people after five more bodies were recovered, with another 30 still considered missing but likely dead.
"Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons that we are considering now as missing and most probably dead in this tragedy," police spokesman Michel Forget told reporters.
Police are investigating whether the disaster involved foul play or criminal negligence, but Forget deflected questions about potential criminal charges. Forget said any charges were up to Quebec prosecutors.
There have been no arrests to date, he said.
Lac-Megantic is about 160 miles east of Montreal and close to the border with Maine and Vermont.
The engineer, named by Canadian media as Tom Harding, lives on a quiet street in Farnham, Quebec, some 90 minutes west of Lac-Magentic, in a two-story stone and vinyl-siding home, Reuters reported. Nobody answered the door at the house on Wednesday.
Reuters contributed to this report.
First published July 11 2013, 1:19 AM