Number of missing in Lac-Mégantic up to 'about 60'

Head of the rail company involved in crash to meet with residents

(Sûreté Du Québec)

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – About 60 people are now considered missing in Lac-Megantic’s train derailment, a number that includes the official death toll of 15, police said Wednesday.

The previous estimate on Tuesday stood at 50.

“The number fluctuates and calls are still coming in,” Quebec provincial police Insp. Michel Forget told a news conference.

“We’re very hopeful this number will eventually stabilize itself.”

No other bodies were found overnight.

Forget said three people who had been considered missing have turned up alive.

A spokeswoman for the coroner’s office said the 15 bodies have been transported to Montreal for analysis and that they should be able to be identified within the next few days.

The tragedy occurred early on Saturday when part of a train careened down a hill into Lac-Megantic and derailed, exploding into a wall of flame and fireballs which sent residents running for their lives and levelling a number of residential and commercial buildings.

Wednesday’s police news conference was held shortly before the head of the rail company that owned the train was scheduled to meet with residents of the devastated community.

Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., was expected to visit a shelter where many residents are still holed up because they have not yet been allowed home.

About 1,200 of the roughly 2,000 people who were forced from their homes on the weekend were given the green light Tuesday to return home.

Burkhardt said Tuesday he hadn’t gone to the stricken community before because company representatives, including president Robert Grindrod, were already there.

In earlier media interviews, the Illinois-based Burkhardt had said he figured he’d have to wear a bullet-proof vest to the town.

In Lac-Megantic, Grindrod attributed that evaluation to the fact that Burkhardt “has a different sense of humour at some times” and didn’t really expect to be shot despite the outrage in the town.

“What he was really saying when he said that, his real intent was that he was going to face very stiff questioning and he expected a lot of byplay with the citizens. He expected to have to answer a lot of very tough questions. He’s not expecting bullets flying or anything like that.

“He’s coming here to talk to the people and express his sympathies as well as ours and see what we can do to help,” said Grindrod.

Grindrod said he had met with some citizens informally already but has been mainly preoccupied with the cleanup.

He said he was “devastated” by the incident.

“I’m devastated for the damage, I’m devastated for the loss of life and injuries and everything else that’s happened,” he said.

Asked Tuesday about possible compensation or changes to policy, Grindrod said no decision will be made on changing company practices until the investigation is complete.

Grindrod also said the railway will apparently be contributing to a fund to help victims that will also see money from the various levels of government.

Compensation could end up being a thorny issue as threats of lawsuits have surfaced and finger-pointing has gone on between the railway and the fire department in nearby Nantes, Que., over possible causes for the derailment.

While an environmental cleanup is already underway, removal of damaged rail cars is not expected to start until at least the weekend, said Grindrod.

The company’s own investigation and the next phase of the cleanup can only start after police and the Transportation Safety Board have finished their work, he said.

Grindrod acknowledged the company likely shares some of the blame for the catastrophe.

“But we can’t say how much blame. Typically major events like this are a combination of factors and we don’t know what all the factors are yet.”

He said there was nothing unusual about having a train sitting unattended as it was when a small fire broke out requiring the intervention of the Nantes fire department. The derailment in Lac-Megantic happened shortly afterward.

Burkhardt, who initially did not stop to speak to media at the airport in Montreal on Tuesday, relented briefly and attributed the disaster to a combination of circumstances, including the actions of the Nantes firefighters.

“The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel and taken him to the scene with them,” he told reporters. “But it’s easy to say what should have happened. We’re dealing with what happened.”

The Nantes fire chief has insisted he and his men followed procedure set down by the railway itself.

The train’s lost oil cargo has polluted the nearby Chaudiere River, where about 100,000 litres of fuel have spilled — although authorities are confident the damage can be contained.

Townsfolk have expressed anger toward the railway and said they felt unsafe having trains roll through the community.

On Saturday, their worst fears came true.

It all began when firefighters in Nantes responded to a fire in an engine of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train which was sitting idle for the night on a stretch of track while its engineer caught some shuteye in a nearby hotel.

The engine, which was towing a series of tanker cars laden with oil, was shut down while the fire was extinguished. One theory advanced by the company is that this caused the brakes to loosen, setting the train on its deadly descent into town.

Forget has said much of the downtown core is being treated as a crime scene but wouldn’t comment on any potential evidence gathered or whether charges will be laid.

Officials from the national Transportation Safety Board, which doesn’t lay criminal charges but makes recommendations on safety and procedures, said there were no signals on the tracks to alert rail traffic controllers to a runaway train.

Such systems are in place on busier railway lines such as that linking Montreal and Quebec City but not secondary lines.

Questions were also raised at the news conference about the tanker cars themselves, which are known as DOT-111s and which safety board officials said have a history of puncturing on impact.

An outpouring of sympathy continued to rain on the town 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

Pope Francis sent a blessing from the Vatican to those touched by the tragedy. The Queen has already expressed her sympathies.

Police say they are treating the disaster area as a “crime scene.”

The national Transportation Safety Board is also investigating.

With files by Nelson Wyatt in Montreal and Andy Blatchford in Lac-Megantic

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