Railway head faces devastated Quebec town, points to train brakes

Wed Jul 10, 2013 6:29pm EDT
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By Julie Gordon and Richard Valdmanis

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - The head of the company whose oil-tanker train exploded and devastated a small Quebec town faced cries of "murderer" from furious town residents on Wednesday and he said the train's hand brakes were likely not set properly, causing the calamity.

Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) Chairman Ed Burkhardt made his comments - his clearest yet on what he thought had gone wrong - as more than 200 investigators sifted through charred wreckage in the center in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Magentic, in what authorities say is a crime scene. They have made no arrests.

Sixty people are either dead or missing after the train - which had been parked on a slope 12 km (8 miles) away on Friday night - moved off, without a driver, accelerating downhill into Lac-Megantic. There it derailed and blew up around 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday.

Dozens of buildings were flattened in the historic center of the lakeside town, including a popular bar that was crowded when the explosion occurred.

One focus of the probe is whether the engineer, the train's only operator, set enough hand brakes on the train when he parked it at the end of his shift on Friday night.

"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," Burkhardt told an often raw and unruly outdoor news conference in Lac-Megantic.

As he spoke, irate town residents looked on and called out repeatedly, on occasion drowning out his words.

"There are no words to describe what this man did here," Alyssia Bolduc, 23, told Reuters afterwards.   Continued...

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways (MMA), speaks to the media as he arrives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Julie Gordon