Death toll in Quebec train blast rises to 13

Overnight search delayed due to safety concerns

Francois Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images

LAC-MÉGANTIC, Que. – Eight more bodies have been found in the wreckage of the Lac-Mégantic, Que., train derailment, bringing the death toll so far to 13.

The number of those pronounced dead has risen now that investigators have managed to gain better access to the zone closest to the blast.

About 50 people, including the victims, have been declared missing after the weekend rail disaster that devastated much of the town.

The first bodies were found on the weekend and the coroner’s office says they are being examined in Montreal to determine their identity.

The coroner’s office is asking the relatives of people missing to provide DNA to help identify victims.

Safety concerns had prevented any overnight search operations, Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said in an earlier news conference.

Health and civil security officials held a separate news conference and said some residents might be allowed back home later Monday. They also said the situation was improving in certain areas in terms of air quality and drinking water.

The town began its work week in anything but working order.

It’s unclear how the town’s survivors might rediscover their normal routine or how long it might take.

Dozens of businesses and numerous homes are destroyed.

A grocery store, a dollar store, and a popular downtown bar are gone. So is the municipal library. There’s a no-go zone around city hall and a main pharmacy.

The town’s prized veterans’ park, along the water, has been scorched.

After viewing the devastation Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened the downtown of Lac-Mégantic to a “war zone.”

From England, the Queen offered her condolences for what she described as a shocking loss of life. She said she hoped it would be possible to rebuild both the property and the lives affected.

The epicentre of the disaster is a bar where many people are feared to have died.

Sophie L’Heureux, manager of Musi-Cafe, left the bar Friday at around 10 p.m. to go home for a quick nap. She was supposed to return to the pub later in the night.

“I’m in survival mode right now. My priority is to try sleep if I can, eat if I can,” she said Monday. “For the rest, it’s one minute, one day at a time.”

“(I) have lots of trouble sleeping because I’m stuck with the images and the sounds, the noise of the fire. It’s very difficult to get away from that.”

Her home is close to the bar, so the ray of light from he crash woke her up. She went outside and saw the flames.

“I saw enough to be horrified by what happened.”

She lost three colleagues and many friends and acquaintances at the bar. She was the manager for about a year, but had worked and hung out there regularly for the last several years.

She carries an enormous amount of anger toward the railway company — a feeling expressed by many residents Monday.

She said the company can’t possibly repair all the damage that’s been inflicted.

The railway, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, has said the locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train.

It said the engineer had locked the brakes before leaving the train.

That shutdown ”may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the company said in a statement Sunday.

There might have been warning signs hours before the disaster.

Witnesses in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before it started moving, said Sunday they had seen sparks and a cloud of diesel smoke as it came to a stop a few hours before the derailment.

Lac-Mégantic’s fire chief said Nantes firefighters had answered a call about a fire aboard the locomotive less than three hours before the train rumbled into Lac-Mégantic.

About 30 buildings were destroyed, including Le Musi-Cafe bar where partygoers were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.

The multiple blasts after Saturday’s derailment of a train carrying crude oil sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

The prime minister says the federal Transportation Safety Board, and also the police, are investigating. Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.

Harper promised to draw lessons from the TSB conclusions to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.

Federal TSB officials said they planned to interview all possible participants as part of what they called a “360-degree,” top-to-bottom, investigation.

They said they had retrieved a so-called “black box” from the train Sunday.