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Quebec premier lashes out at rail company after inferno

Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son and two daughters-in-law, receives a hug from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois during her visit to Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Thursday, July 11, 2013. Marois toured the site of Canada's worst railway catastrophe in almost 150 years, after a runaway oil train killed 50 people in a fiery explosion. Ryan Remiorz, AP

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Quebec Premier Pauline Marois lashed out on Thursday at the railway boss whose runaway train leveled the center of a tiny Quebec town, as residents came to grips with the reality that 50 of their neighbors were likely dead.

"The behavior of the company and its president has been absolutely deplorable," Marois said of the executive, Ed Burkhardt, and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose driverless train of tanker cars smashed into Lac-Megantic early on Saturday and exploded in a wall of fire.

The Quebec government is making a $58 million aid package available to the many people and businesses affected by the explosion.

The five-locomotive train was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude oil, part of a vast crude-by-rail expansion throughout North America as oil output soars in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines run out of space.

Police say they have recovered 24 bodies, with another 26 people still missing and now presumed dead.

Burkhardt said on Wednesday he thought the engineer had not set enough handbrakes when he parked his train late on Friday at the end of his shift, and he apologized to residents of the town of 6,000.

The words of remorse came too late for many locals, who accuse Burkhardt of shirking responsibility. A chaotic news conference he gave on Wednesday was interrupted by cries of "murderer" from angry residents.

"They still aren't taking the blame," said one resident, who would give only her first name, Christiane.

Sifting through

More than 200 investigators are working day and night to sift through the charred wreckage in the center of the lakeside town in what authorities say is a crime scene. They have made no arrests.

A death toll of 50 would make the accident the worst rail crash in North America since 1989, and Canada's deadliest accident since in 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.

But while the "red zone" in the center of town remains closed to all but investigators, some businesses have started to reopen and more than half of the 2,000 people evacuated from their homes on Saturday have been allowed to return.

Office supply shop owner Jean Dube, 54, said he was uncertain whether his insurance would cover his losses because of confusion over whether the building — which lies near the blast site — was damaged.

His shop will be off limits indefinitely as police and federal investigators sift through the area for bodies and clues to the cause of the crash. He said his store did not appear damaged, but emergency officials told him there was oil and toxic gas in his basement.

"There are details of our policy that we were not aware of. If the building is damaged, our lost revenue is covered for 12 months," he said. "If there is no damage to the building, we get two weeks. This was shocking when we learned this. They told us that it is the same for other companies here as well."

But the railway's loss will turn out to be truckers' short-term gain. Gaston Quirion, 59, owner of Quiroy trucking in Lac-Megantic, said he expects to be overloaded with work with the temporary track closure and the restart of local business.

"The factories are restarting ... We expect much more work to supply the factories for a while because the train can't pass," he said. He had about 20 trucks in his fleet. "We will need to request help from other companies. Before the train began stopping here we needed 75 trucks," he added.

He said he and his girlfriend were out of town the night of the blast, but that his 75 year-old mother was in the apartment above his store.

"She said the inside of her room became bright like the day, even though the blinds were down," he said. She escaped in her car unhurt.