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Unanswered Questions for Canada’s Worst Rail Disaster in Nearly 150 Years

July 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Nearly a week after a runaway train derailed and triggered an enormous explosion in a tiny town in Canada, there are growing questions and anger about what led to the tragedy.

All this week, crews have searched the burned-out wreckage in the little town of Lac-Megantic. Authorities believe the final death toll will reach 50, making it Canada’s worst railway disaster in nearly 150 years. It began early Saturday, with plumes of black smoke and fire, after a runaway train hauling crude oil rolled down a seven-mile incline.

It derailed in the center of town, where at least five cars exploded, burning down 30 buildings.

PIERRE LEBEAU, Quebec: It was like daylight. It came so light, it was like the sunlight. And I heard a lot of detonations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yesterday, Edward Burkhardt, chairman of the company that owns Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, traveled to Lac-Megantic for the first time since the disaster.

MAN: Burkhardt.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: He faced angry, grieving townspeople, and sounded a note of contrition.

EDWARD BURKHARDT, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway: I would feel the same way if something like this happened in my community. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Burkhardt has also come under sharp criticism from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who visited Lac-Megantic today.

PAULINE MAROIS, Quebec premier (through translator): To my mind, the leader of that firm should have been there on the spot right at the beginning of this tragic incident. It seems to me that goes without saying. He should have been there to better communicate with the population. They have many questions to ask, and also, with the municipal authorities, they have all kinds of questions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the meantime, it’s still unclear what caused the disaster. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board says just an hour before the wreck, the train was in a nearby town, when an engine providing pressure to the air brakes caught fire. Local firemen responded.

DONALD ROSS, Transportation Safety Board of Canada: The engine was shut down at about midnight. The fire was extinguished. And the train starts to move at approximately 00:56, after midnight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Burkhardt suggested yesterday that the firefighters apparently changed switches in the train’s cab.

EDWARD BURKHARDT: Somebody tampered with it. We later found out — we didn’t know at the time — that it was the Nantes fire department. Did they do this maliciously or on purpose? Absolutely not. They did what they thought was correct. It was an important causal factor in this whole thing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: with its air brakes disabled, the train was now dependent on manual hand brakes. But Burkhardt says he believes the train’s engineer failed to set them properly.

EDWARD BURKHARDT: We think he applied some hand brakes. The question is, did he apply enough of them? He’s told us that he applied 11 hand brakes. And our general feeling is that that’s not — now that that is not true. Initially, we took him at his word.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The engineer has not spoken publicly. But Quebec police have now opened a criminal investigation into the derailment.