Train crash death toll likely to hit 50; CEO blames engineer

2013-07-11T00:00:00Z Train crash death toll likely to hit 50; CEO blames engineerThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec - Canadian officials are now telling the families of the 30 people missing in a runaway oil train crash over the weekend that all are presumed dead.

With 20 bodies found, that would put the death toll from Saturday's derailment and explosions at 50.

The head of the U.S. railway company whose oil train crashed into the Quebec town has blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly. A fire on the train just hours before the crash is also being investigated.

Parts of the devastated town had been too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies even days after the disaster. Some 60 had been presumed missing earlier.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled downhill for seven miles before derailing in the center of Lac-Megantic. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

The crash raised questions about the increasing use of rail to transport oil in North America.

Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway's parent company, Rail World Inc., said the engineer has been suspended without pay and was under "police control."

"We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?" Burkhardt said. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that's not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don't."

Burkhardt encountered sharp criticism from Quebec politicians and jeers from Lac-Megantic residents while making his first visit to the town.

Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company's response to the disaster. She depicted Burkhardt's attitude and response as "deplorable" and "unacceptable."

Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash.

The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape on Wednesday - not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks.

The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.

Until Wednesday, the railway had defended its employees' actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer as culpable.

"He's not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him," the CEO said. "I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges ... If that's the case, let the chips fall where they may."

Burkhardt, who arrived in town with a police escort, said he had delayed his post-crash visit to Lac-Megantic in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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