Criminal probe into fatal Quebec train crash

Tuesday 09 July 2013 22.47
The official death toll of 13 is expected to climb to at least 50
The official death toll of 13 is expected to climb to at least 50

Canadian police have opened a criminal probe into Saturday's fatal fuel train blast in the town of Lac-Megantic, an explosion they said was unlikely to have been caused by terrorism.

Police also raised the death toll to 15 from 13 and said the total number of dead and missing was 50.

Police spokesman Michel Forget gave few details of the investigation and said it was unclear whether it would lead to criminal charges being filed.

Investigators seeking the cause of the deadly train crash are focusing on the train's brakes, the railway company's own regulations and whether Canada needs tougher train-transport standards.

Officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said more than a dozen investigators were examining every angle of the accident.

On Saturday, a runaway train hauling 72 cars of crude oil ploughed into the lakeside town and exploded.

TSB investigators have not yet been able to enter the "red zone", where the tracks ran through the centre of the town, and where the derailment and explosion levelled buildings and left most of the rail cars in a huge, ungainly clump.

One of the key elements of the probe, which lead investigator Donald Ross said is still in its very early stages, is the strength of the widely used DOT-111 cylindrical tanker cars that carried the crude.

Both the TSB and its US equivalent, the National Transportation Safety Board, have long urged tougher rules for such cars.

"If we think there needs to be a safety message out to the industry that they need to beef things up, we're going to do it," Mr Ross said.

But nobody knows if stronger cars would have prevented the disaster, which involved a train that Ross said was travelling "well in excess of its authorised speed".

About 2,000 residents of Lac-Megantic, a third of the town's population, were asked to leave their homes after the accident.

More than half were allowed back for the first time today, although 50 factories and businesses in the blast zone remain shut.

With fires out and authorities now able to get to the centre of the blast, the death toll is expected to climb.

The coroner's office asked relatives of the missing to bring in brushes, combs and razors so specialists could extract DNA samples from strands of hair.

The train was parked in nearby Nantes, Quebec, on Friday night when one of its engines, which had been left running to ensure the air brakes had enough pressure, caught fire.

Local firemen turned off the engine, put out the fire and went home.

The unattended train then started moving downhill toward Lac-Megantic, and derailed and blew up in the town centre at just after 1am (6am Irish time) on Saturday.

The ensuing fire engulfed nearby buildings.

Train operator Montreal, Maine & Atlantic says shutting off the engine caused the brakes to lose pressure, sending the train into the town.

But the company's chairman, Ed Burkhardt, also said the company will no longer leave trains unattended or change crews at Nantes, near Quebec's border with Maine.

"They're going to go right through there and change crews at another station further west and where the terrain is better and where the infrastructure is better," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Infrastructure was not a factor in this derailment but it's always a consideration."

Mr Ross said the train was on a 1.2% grade when it started sliding toward Lac-Megantic, a relatively steep grade in railroad terms.

He said the train line did not have a signal system that could have warned the dispatcher of a runaway train, and that although all trains are required to have automatic braking systems for runaways - called dead man switches - they only work when the train's locomotives are running.

Industry rules say engineers must set enough of a train's handbrakes to ensure it cannot move.

Mr Ross said his team would not be able to check whether the brakes were set until it is allowed to enter the centre of town and look closely at the pile of derailed cars.

Mr Burkhardt said the company had followed protocol, using the same standard as Canadian Pacific Railways.

By yesterday evening, emergency crews had finally reached the Musi-Cafe, a downtown bar near the centre of the blast.

A band was performing there and the building was packed with people when the explosion occurred, eyewitnesses said.

The coroner's office asked relatives of the missing to bring in brushes, combs and razors so specialists could extract DNA samples from strands of hair.

Police moved a large truck in front of the disaster area today to block television cameras from filming images of the recovery effort.

The train was parked in nearby Nantes on Friday night when one of its engines, which had been left running to ensure the air brakes had enough pressure, caught fire.

Local firemen turned off the engine, put out the fire and went home.

The train then started moving by itself and blew up in Lac-Megantic at 1am on Saturday. The ensuing fire engulfed nearby buildings.

Train operator Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said shutting off the engine caused the brakes to lose pressure, sending the train into the town.

Industry experts said engineers were also supposed to set enough of the train's handbrakes to ensure it could not move.

No one from the train operator was available to comment on how many handbrakes had been set.

"I'm not going to take full responsibility until such time as we complete an investigation. I don't think that's unreasonable ... we have to know what really happened, not just speculate," Robert Grindrod, president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, told public broadcaster Radio-Canada last night.

"It might be nice in the news to have a quick answer, but it's more important to have the correct answer because that's the only way you can prevent something like this from happening again," he said.

By yesterday evening, emergency crews had finally reached the Musi-Cafe, a downtown bar near the centre of the blast.

A band was performing that night and the building was packed with people, eyewitnesses said.