The Guardian – Death toll in Canadian oil train disaster rises to 13
About 40 people remain missing police say after being able to approach near to where the explosion happened
Isabeau Doucet in Lac-Mégantic and agencies
The death toll in the oil train derailment in Quebec has been officially increased to 13 while about 40 more remain missing, police said after investigators were finally able to approach near where the runaway train exploded.
Sergeant Benoit Richard of the Quebec provincial police said eight more bodies had been found in the wreckage after conditions improved enough for inspectors to get better access to the charred site two days after the disaster. Police would not say where the bodies were located for fear of upsetting families.
Police are now considering the lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, in Quebec’s eastern township, a crime scene after a 72-car driverless freight train full of crude oil crashed into and pulverised the historic town centre early on Saturday morning.
The remains of 30 to 40 buildings and derailed tanker cars have been off-limits behind police cordons and the search for victims was hampered by the threat that burning tanker cars and their leaked contents, which locals fear leaked into the city’s gutters, could cause further explosions.
“The vast majority of fires are out,” confirmed Sûreté du Québec officer Jean-Thomas Fortin, and a plan is in place to allow 1,500 of the 2,000 evacuated residents to return home from tomorrow.
Forensic pathologists are on the scene waiting to begin the work of identifying the victims, some of which they fear may have been completely vaporised by the blast, but the ground is still too hot for them to enter the front line of the blast, said Christine Savard, regional co-ordinator for public security.
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 calamity occurred, the head of the railway that operated the train said on Monday.
The train had been parked at a siding on a slope near the town of Nantes, which is eight miles west of Lac-Mégantic. The volunteer Nantes fire service was called out late on Friday night to deal with an engine fire on one of the train’s locomotives.
Nantes fire chief Patrick Lambert told Reuters the crew had switched off the engine as they extinguished a “good-sized” blaze in the engine, probably caused by a fuel or oil line break in the engine.
The engine had been left on by the train’s engineer to maintain pressure in the air brakes, Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said in an interview. As the pressure gradually “leaked off”, the air brakes failed and the train began to slide downhill, he said.
The fire service said it contacted a local MMA dispatcher in Farnham after the blaze was out. “We told them what we did and how we did it,” Lambert said.
Asked whether there had been any discussion about the brakes, he replied: “There was no discussion of the brakes at that time. We were there for the train fire. As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them.”
It was not immediately clear what the MMA dispatcher did after speaking to the fire service. Burkhardt said fire service should have also tried to contact the train’s operator, who was staying at a nearby hotel.
“If the engine was shut off, someone should have made a report to the local railroad about that,” he said.
The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, visited the town on Sunday afternoon and described it in a news conference as looking like a war zone. Around the village residents are still trying to come to terms with the disaster.
“Every day there’s another person declared missing, another family member not getting a phone call,” says Jocelyne Legendre, a 53-year-old woman temporarily sheltered at the local school where the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are tending to the displaced.
She said that there must have been 40 people just at the Musi-Cafe, the local bar where many are feared to have died, “to say nothing of the blocks of people who died in their sleep”. She was on her way to the bar that night before a “twist of fate” kept her home.
Mario Gabouri, who was woken by the crash, ran to see what was happening and saw his neighbour blown on to his back on the asphalt by the intensity of the explosion. “It was like a nightmare when you try to run but your limbs are too heavy,” he said.
Gabouri, a 53-year-old wood factory worker displaced from his home located in what is now the “red zone”, said at least four of his friends and colleagues were missing.
Gabouri alerted police on Saturday morning when he saw boiling green petrol pouring into the Chaudière river.
Quebec’s environment minister, Yves-François Blanchet, told CBC’s Quebec AM that he estimated 100,000 litres of oil spilled into the river.
“What we have is a small, very fine, very thin layer of oil which, however, covers almost entirely the river for something like 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lac-Mégantic to St-Georges-de-Beauce,” he said.
The rail tankers involved in the derailment are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board investigator told Associated Press in a telephone interview late on Monday.
Donald Ross said Canada‘s TSB has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on the tankers, though he acknowledged it was too early to say whether a different or modified tanker would have prevented the tragedy.
The DOT-111 is a staple of the American freight rail fleet. But its flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Among other things, its steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents.
“It’s too early to tell. There’s a lot of factors involved,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of energy here. The train came down on a fairly significant grade for 6.8 miles before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did.” He said the train was moving at 63mph when it derailed.
The train was carrying heavy crude oil, Savard said. It had been extracted from the Bekkan shale oil fields in North Dakota and was headed to eastern refineries in New Brunswick, according to Christophe Journet, senior sales marketing and management at MMA.
The soaring global oil prices and the development of new technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing and and tar sands extraction, have caused a controversial bonanza in North American oil production.
According to the Montreal Gazette, Canadian Pacific’s revenues per car have risen 12% in the first quarter since last year, thanks to the oil by rail surge, while 12% of Canadian railroad freight is hazardous material.
Serious public opposition to practices such as fracking and tar sands extraction, as well as the building of major pipelines has lead to a hasty surge in the transport of oil by freight.