AS QUEBEC premier Pauline Marois arrived to tour the site of Canada’s worst railway catastrophe in almost 150 years, residents of the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec were coming to terms with the fact that 50 people had probably been killed in the disaster.
Yesterday, five days after a train pulling 72 cylinders of crude oil left the track and exploded into a wall of fire, police said they had recovered 20 bodies, with another 30 people still missing and presumed dead, confirming the worst fears of a community that had all but given up hope.
“She’s dead,” said Jean-Guy Lapierre of his niece, holding a copy of a Quebec tabloid that had printed pictures of some of the town’s missing young people on its front page. “She was just 28.”
The crash and subsequent explosions rocked the eastern Canadian town of Lac-Megantic shortly after 1am local time on Saturday, levelling its historic central strip.
Houses and businesses were burned to the ground, including the Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was packed with people.
On Wednesday, the head of the railway company said the engineer probably did not set enough handbrakes when he parked his train some eight miles west of town late on Friday. He apologised to residents of the town of about 6,000.
The words of remorse came too late for many residents who remain angry at the company – Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA) – and accuse chairman Ed Burkhardt of shirking responsibility for the accident.
“They still aren’t taking the blame,” said Christiane, a woman who lived near the blast site who declined to give her last name. “First it’s the firemen, now the engineer, who will they blame tomorrow?”
Mr Burkhardt had previously said that the air brakes that would have prevented the disaster failed because they were powered by an engine that was shut down by firefighters as they dealt with a fire shortly before the catastrophe occurred.
On Wednesday, his focus was squarely on the engineer. He said: “It’s very questionable whether the hand brakes were properly applied on this train.As a matter of fact, I’ll say they weren’t, or we wouldn’t have had this incident.”
More than 200 investigators are sifting through the charred wreckage in what authorities say is a crime scene. They have made no arrests.
A death toll of 50 would make the accident Canada’s worst since 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.
It would also be North America’s worst rail crash since 1989, when 112 people died as an 11-car passenger train plunged off a bridge in Mexico.
There were glimmers of hope too. Nicole Carrier, who works at a hospital, was shocked to open a newspaper on Wednesday morning and see her face under the headline, ‘Have you seen these people?’
“It’s Facebook’s fault,” said Ms Carrier, explaining that a friend’s daughter had posted a message asking if she and her partner were still alive. The couple, who were evacuated from their home, did not have internet access so did not respond.
MMA is one of many firms that have stepped up crude-by-rail deliveries as producers seek alternatives to pipelines that have been stretched to capacity. That has led to a shift in the type of rail cars passing through towns like Lac-Megantic.