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Toll in Quebec oil train derailment sure to rise

Tuesday - 7/9/2013, 2:34am  ET

Damage in the downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec is seen Sunday, July 7, 2013, the day after a train derailed causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

BENJAMIN SHINGLER
Associated Press

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) -- Traumatized survivors of an oil train derailment that wiped out the heart of a small town braced for more bad news as inspectors were finally cleared to enter the charred site's epicenter and look for remains late Monday, more than two days after the disaster that killed at least 13 people. A total of 50 were missing and the death toll was sure to rise.

Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said eight more bodies had been found in the wreckage after firefighters doused the flames and cooled down some of the oil tankers that were in danger of exploding. Five bodies were found over the weekend, and police would not say where the newly discovered ones were, for fear of upsetting families.

All but one of the train's 73 tanker cars were carrying oil when they came loose early Saturday, sped downhill nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, and derailed. At least five of the cars exploded.

Maude Verrault, a waitress at downtown's Musi-Cafe, was outside smoking when she spotted the blazing train barreling toward her.

"I've never seen a train moving so fast in my life, and I saw flames ... Then someone screamed 'the train is going to derail!' and that's when I ran," Verrault said. She said she felt the heat scorch her back as she ran from the explosion, but was too terrified to look back.

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 The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Monday.

TSB investigator Donald Ross said Canada's TSB has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on these tankers, though he acknowledged it's too early to say whether a different or modified tanker would have avoided this weekend's 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, which almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.

"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 (10.9 kilometers) before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did." He said the train was moving at 63 mph (101 kph) when it derailed.

The Saturday blasts destroyed about 30 buildings, including a public library and Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was filled with revelers, and forced about a third of the town's 6000 residents from their homes. Much of the area where the bar once stood was burned to the ground. Burned-out car frames dotted the landscape.

The derailment raised questions about the safety of Canada's growing practice of transporting oil by train, and was sure to bolster arguments that a proposed oil pipeline running from Canada across the U.S. -- one that Canadian officials badly want -- would be safer.

Raymond Lafontaine, whose son and two daughters-in-law were among the missing, said he was angry with what appeared to be lack of safety regulations.

"We always wait until there's a big accident to change things," he said. "Well, today we've had a big accident, it's one of the biggest ever in Canada."

The fires sparked by the exploding tanks burned for two days, impeding investigators from reaching some of the "hot spots," including the area near the destroyed Musi-Cafe.

"It's a zone that we've started to work on and we'll work on it more in the hours to come," Richard said.

The area remained part of a criminal investigation and investigators were exploring all options, including the possibility that someone intentionally tampered with the train, Richard said.

Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the train was inspected the day before the accident in Montreal and no deficiencies were found. Lebel defended his government against criticisms it had cut back on rail safety measures. He said the rail remains a safe way to transport goods the vast majority of the time.

Earlier Monday, Queen Elizabeth II expressed deep sadness over the disaster, saying in a message through the federal government that the loss of life "has shocked us all." Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town Sunday and compared it to a war zone.

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