Death toll rises to 13 in Canadian derailment; railway’s chief alleges train was tampered with

Train derailment sparks 'river of fire' in Quebec town 2:57

The runaway train carrying crude oil that derailed in a Quebec town, killing at least 13 people and leaving dozens of others unaccounted for, was tampered with in some way, the company's chairman claimed in an interview published Monday.

Two days after the train derailed on a curve at 1 a.m. ET Saturday in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, creating an enormous fireball that all but incinerated six city blocks, police said at a news conference Monday that they had found eight more bodies, bringing the known number of deaths to 13. About 40 people remain unaccounted for, they said.

Police gave few details at the news conference. Earlier, authorities confirmed that the 72-car train's black box data recorder has been recovered and could give some clues as to why it began to roll seven miles downhill and crash into the town.

Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the locomotive suspected of breaking loose and causing the derailment had been inspected just the day before, on Friday, and was found to have "no defects."

"If somebody violated regulations, after the investigation is completed we will take all measures allowed by the law," Lebel said.

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the railway that operated the train, said he was certain someone tampered with the locomotive, The Montreal Gazette reported in an article it published Monday afternoon. The newspaper said it interviewed Burkhardt by phone from Chicago.

"We have evidence of this," he said, according to the Gazette. "But this is an item that needs further investigation. We need to talk to some people we believe to have knowledge of this."

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Burkhardt didn't say what evidence the company had, other than to say he didn't believe the derailment was malicious. He said the railway had launched its own internal investigation.

"I don't like hearing statements that we don't have people there," when in fact, the railway has a dozen employees in Lac-Mégantic and has been asking for a meeting with the city's government since Saturday, he told the Gazette.

An aerial view of burned train cars Monday after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Transportation Safety Board of Canada via Reuters / file

Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she would be meeting with representatives from the railway for a first time later in the day.

Police said Monday that they couldn't rule out that a "third party" was responsible, adding that they had more than 100 officers involved in an active criminal investigation.

The explosion and fires also forced more than 2,000 local residents from their homes. About 1,500 could be able to return home Tuesday, authorities said.

Much of the scene remained off limits more than two days after the derailment. Firefighters said the hot-white blaze left a scene of destruction like nothing they'd ever before encountered.

"In my 32 years in the fire business, I've never seen devastation like this," said Tim Pellerin, chief of the Rangeley, Maine, Fire Department, one of many northeastern U.S. agencies contributing to the containment effort.

"Six city blocks have been devastated, destroyed and burned," Pellerin told NBC affiliate WLBZ in Bangor, Maine. "It virtually burned the tar in the city street.

"Even the pavement burned. The streets have been turned to dirt [because] there was so much heat."

The Quebec coroner's office said the fire was so intense that some or most of the 40 people still unaccounted for could have been instantaneously vaporized, the Gazette reported. It could be years —if ever — before all of the victims are identified.