Officials Probe Lac-Megantic Train Explosion; CEO Questions Firefighter Actions

By Lauren S Murphy, Hugo Miller and Theophilos Argitis | July 9, 2013

The investigation into Canada’s worst rail accident in 27 years accelerated as firefighters rejected a suggestion by a railroad executive that they may have inadvertently caused an unmanned train carrying crude oil to explode and kill at least 13 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train carrying 72 carloads of crude crashed early Saturday near the center of Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal. About 50 people are still missing, including the confirmed dead, police said. It’s the country’s most lethal rail disaster since a collision between a Canadian National Railway freight train and a VIA Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alberta killed 23 people in February 1986.

Police and rail safety authorities are investigating how the unmanned locomotive moved from its parking spot outside the neighbouring town of Nantes before barreling into Lac-Megantic, incinerating about 30 buildings in the downtown core.

Local firefighters who put out an earlier fire on the train may have unknowingly switched off the air brakes after the engineer secured the train and left it for the night, Edward Burkhardt, president and chief executive officer of closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, which owns Montreal, Maine & Atlantic., said yesterday

“The shut down of the locomotive caused the brakes to gradually release,” Burkhardt said yesterday in a CBC TV interview. Burkhardt wasn’t available for comment, Cathy Aldana, his assistant, said by telephone. He will travel to Lac-Megantic this afternoon, she said today.

Firefighters’ Actions

Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert denied his team did anything wrong.

“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” he said on CBC TV.

Municipal employees, including firefighters, have been asked not to speak to media, said a spokeswoman today for Nantes municipal civil security who declined to give her name.

The death toll was raised to 13 from five yesterday and number of missing to 50 from 40, including confirmed deaths, Lt. Michel Brunet, a spokesman with the Surete du Quebec provincial police, said on Canadian television yesterday.

The Quebec coroner’s office asked families to bring hats, razors, toothbrushes and hairbrushes to help with the identification of the bodies using hair samples.

“It’s going to be a challenge to make positive identifications because the fire was so intense,” Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman for the Quebec coroner’s office, said by phone from the town last night. “We are only at the beginning of the investigation. We are spending all our time looking for bodies at the site.”

Air Brakes

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said in a July 7 statement that the train was shut down after the engineer left for the evening. This “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the company, a short-line carrier owned by Rail World said in a statement.

The company earlier said the train had been tied down by the engineer before he left as part of a crew change.

The remains of oil tankers are visible at the end of the town’s main street where houses are burnt to their foundations, surrounded by piles of red bricks.

“People are angry, sad, frustrated,” said Guillaume Comtois, a 31-year-old carpenter who lost a close friend in the explosion and said he “knew pretty much everyone” who hung out at the cafes and clubs downtown. “Sadness, because we lost a lot of friends, and frustration because it’s not supposed to happen. There’s been a human mistake, it should have been prevented.”

‘People Responsible’

Richard Fournier, like many of his neighbors, wants answers. “It was an accident, but if there are people responsible somewhere,” residents deserve to know, he said.

While still below the average pace of the past five years, the number of railway accidents in Canada increased to 439 in the first five months of the year, a 7.9 percent increase from 2012, largely due to derailments, according to data provided by the Transport Safety Board. Accidents involving dangerous goods rose to 57 in the first five months of the year from 48 a year earlier.

Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s main opposition New Democratic Party, criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for cutting spending for rail safety.

“We’re seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail,” Mulcair told reporters July 7. “There are attendant dangers involved in that, and at the same time the Conservative government is cutting transport safety in Canada, cutting back the budgets in that area.”

Rail Safety

According to estimates of departmental spending plans, Canada has forecast C$33.8 million in spending on rail safety for the fiscal year that began April 1, down from C$36.9 million the previous fiscal year.

“Our government has not cut any inspectors,” Denis Lebel, Canada’s Minister of Transport, said yesterday in a media briefing in Lac-Megantic, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We have taken concrete action to increase rail safety. In fact, we have invested over C$100 million in rail safety since 2009.”

The government toughened penalties for rule-breakers while railway companies are required by law to ensure the safe operations of their trains, and fines have been raised 400 percent, Lebel said.

Oil Shipments

“We do not yet know the cause of this tragic derailment,” Lebel said. “We do know that a Transport Canada inspector inspected the locomotive involved in this incident just the day before it happened, on July 5, and found no deficiencies.”

The crash is the latest in a series of accidents involving oil on rails as Canadian producers turn to shipping crude by train, with construction of pipelines such as the Keystone XL conduit to the Gulf Coast delayed by environmental and regulatory concerns. TransCanada Corp. applied to build Keystone XL five years ago and the Obama administration initially rejected the project in January last year.

Liziane Bédard lives right beside the tracks about 5 minutes away from the blast site.

“The train came down the track very very fast, like whoosh,” the 16-year-old said still in her pajamas after being evacuated from her home. “It doesn’t normally go that fast, it was supposed to slow down.”

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train was carrying crude to Irving Oil Corp.’s 298,800-barrel-a-day refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, according to a statement on Irving’s website.

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