LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who blasted a railway chief for demonstrating deplorable attitude in the face of Canada’s worst rail disaster in almost 150 years, visited the partially demolished town Thursday — five days after 50 people were killed in a fiery explosion.
Police said that 20 bodies had been recovered, so far, and 30 people remained missing and were presumed dead.
Prior to arriving in Lac-Mégantic, Marois had faulted the train company’s response.
“We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public,” Marois said. She depicted Burkhardt’s attitude as “deplorable” and “unacceptable.”
Edward Burkhardt, the head of the train’s U.S.-based parent company, who arrived Wednesday with a police escort and faced jeers from residents, said he had delayed his visit 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 in different places.
“I understand the extreme anger,” he said. “We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.”
Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., was expected to meet with residents and the mayor Thursday.
On Wednesday, Burkhardt blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down a seven-mile (11-kilometre) incline, derailed and ignited in the centre of Lac-Megantic early Saturday. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
Burkhardt said the train’s engineer had been suspended without pay and was under “police control.”
Investigators also had spoken with Burkhardt during his visit, said a police official, Sgt. Benoit Richard. He did not elaborate.
Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees’ actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer.
“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 did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec. Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.
“He’s not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him,” Burkhardt said. “I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges … If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.”
Investigators are also looking at a fire on the same train just hours before the disaster. A fire official has said the train’s power was shut down as standard operating procedure, meaning the train’s air brakes would have been disabled. In that case, hand brakes on individual train cars would have been needed.
The derailment is Canada’s worst railway disaster since a train plunged into a Quebec river in 1864, killing 99.
The crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of rail to transport oil in North America, especially in the booming North Dakota oil fields and Alberta oil sands far from the sea.