As two more bodies were found in the ashes Tuesday, Canadian police said they had begun a criminal investigation
into the runaway oil train that incinerated the heart of a close-knit town near the Maine border.
The death toll in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, rose to 15
, with at least 37 residents unaccounted for
and feared dead. The coroner's office said some may have been vaporized
by the early Saturday inferno that erupted when at least five of 72 tank cars full of North Dakota shale oil exploded after the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train rolled 6 miles downhill and derailed about 1:15 a.m.
Quebec Provincial Police Inspector Michel Forget said criminal negligence was one possible charge being considered, the CBC reported. Terrorism has been ruled out
The locomotive's data-recording "black box" has been recovered. The head of the rail company has accused local firefighters of disabling the train's air brakes while fighting a small fire aboard one locomotive about an hour before the catastrophe
. But the fire chief of nearby Nantes denied that his crews had acted improperly, saying that they had followed railway policy and that rail personnel were notified after the engine blaze was extinguished.
STORY: Brakes had been disabled in fatal oil train crash
Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway's parent company, Rail World, arrived from Chicago on Tuesday evening. He told reporters that "a combination of factors," including the lack of an on-site engineer, were responsible for the accident, The Montreal Gazette reported. He said the rail company could not assume the entire cost of the disaster.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada confirmed during a news briefing that a railway employee was present
during the locomotive blaze, which was reported just before midnight Friday. It's not yet clear whether the employee
, who was not the engineer but had parked the train for the night, had checked the braking system after firefighters left
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said it took 45 minutes to put out the fire.
"The people from MMA told us, 'That's great — the train is secure, there's no more fire, there's nothing anymore, there's no more danger,'" he said. "We were given our leave, and we left."
The five-engine train was on the main track and not a rail siding as reported initially, one safety board official said Tuesday. The slope was 1.2%, which is considered steep by railroad standards.
A rail yard neighbor reported hearing and seeing the train roll away about five minutes after firefighters left. Rail dispatchers were unaware of the runaway train because the track, a secondary line, has no warning or monitoring systems.
The lead safety board investigator, Donald Ross, said the train began rolling toward Lac-Megantic about 12:56 a.m. Saturday. Less than 20 minutes and 6 miles later, it jumped the tracked traveling 63 mph and exploded. The inferno could be seen from space.
The fire destroyed about 30 buildings, including the popular Musi-Cafe, which was packed as usual on a Saturday night. About a third of the town's 6,000 residents had to flee, with 1,200 returning Tuesday.
Resident Gilles Fluet told the Associated Press that the train "was moving at a hellish speed. No lights, no signals, nothing at all. There was no warning. It was a black blob that came out of nowhere."
He had just said goodbye to friends at the Musi-Cafe and left. "A half-minute later, and I wouldn't be talking to you right now," he said.
"There are those who ran fast and those who made the right decision. Those who fooled around trying to start their cars to leave the area, there are probably some who burned in them," Fluet told AP. "And some who weren't fast enough to escape the river of fire that ran down to the lake, they were roasted."
About 200 officers have been slowly searching for bodies or remains in the "red zone" around the derailment. Bodies that have been recovered were burned beyond recognition, and medical examiners are using DNA samples provided by families to try to identify the victims.
The Quebec coroner's office said that none of the bodies recovered so far can be identified as male or female, and that identifying all the remains could take years, if ever, the Gazette reported.
The disaster has focused attention on MMA's accident record and raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline. Ross noted that the tank cars were generic DOT-111 models and not double-hulled or reinforced. Flaws in the tankers have been noted as far back as 1991.
In March 2012, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has issued safety guidelines on the DOT-111s, including a recommendation that all tank cars used to carry ethanol and crude oil be reinforced to make them more resistant to punctures in derailments. But the Department of Transportation has not implemented the guidelines, which the rail industry opposes as too costly — perhaps $1 billion.
U.S. Federal Railroad Administration records show that before the Lac-Megantic accident, MMA had 34 derailments since 2003, five resulting in damage of more than $100,000.
Burkhardt called those figures misleading.
"This is the only significant mainline derailment this company has had in the last 10 years. We've had, like most railroads, a number of smallish incidents, usually involving accidents in yard trackage and industry trackage," he told the CBC. http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/...238/story.html http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/ http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/w...train/2503889/