Engineer blamed for Quebec oil tanker train blast

Engineer blamed for Quebec oil tanker train blast
An employee failed to properly set the brakes of the oil tanker train that derailed and exploded in a Quebec town on Saturday, according to the head of the railway company. At least 50 people have died or are still missing after the tragedy.

"I think he did something wrong ...we think he applied some hand brakes but the question is did he apply enough of them," Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of Rail World Inc., told reporters on Wednesday. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes, we think that's not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don't."

Burkhardt  added that a train engineer has been suspended without pay.

Rail World Inc. is the parent company of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company, which was operating the train at the time of the accident.

Burkhardt made his comments as he visited the devastated town of Lac-Megantic, where the train rolled down a hill and crashed. All but one of the train’s 73 tanker cars were carrying crude oil.

Edward Burkhardt, CEO of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways Inc.,(MMA) (AFP Photo / Steeve Duguay)

The Quebec police are now presuming that all those missing in the tragedy are dead. Earlier Wednesday, provincial police inspector Michel Forget reduced the total number of dead and missing to 50 from 60.

"Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons that we are considering now as missing and most probably dead in this tragedy," Forget told reporters. Twenty bodies have been recovered thus far.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company's response in the wake of the disaster, announcing a $60-million fund to help victims of the catastrophe and rebuild the town.

"We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public," Marois said shortly before Burkhardt’s visit.

Canadian police said they have launched an inquiry, adding that there have been no arrests yet. "We are conducting a criminal investigation. We are not neglecting anything so far," Forget said. The police inspector ruled out terrorism as a cause of the tragedy.

This photo provided July 8, 2013 by Surete du Quebec, shows a firefighter and a pile of burnt cars and debris left from a train derailment and exposion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada (AFP Photo)

Forget added that there may have been other causes for the derailment, while other officials have raised the possibility that the train was tampered with before the crash.

The accident forced the evacuation of 2,000 people - nearly a third of the town’s population. Some residents started returning home on Tuesday, although officials say part of the town remains dangerous and is cordoned off as a crime zone. They are not sure when the remainder of the evacuees – around 800 people - will be allowed to return home.

"We just want to go home," a man told Reuters before being ushered away by police. "We have rights in Quebec, no?"

The blast and heavy fire occurred shortly after 1:00am (05:00 GMT) on Saturday, when the train with five locomotives hurtled downhill. The train derailed at Lac-Megantic, a French-speaking town with a population of 6,000 people. At least five cars exploded at the site, according to investigators.

Before the Quebec accident, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company had 34 derailments since 2003.