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LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - Provincial and municipal leaders lashed out on Thursday at the company whose runaway train leveled the center of a tiny Quebec town as more residents returned home and officials opened up a site for tributes to the 50 people who likely died.
Police said they had found an additional four bodies in the wreckage of the town center, bringing the total to 24. Another 26 people are missing and presumed dead.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, whose government is making a C$60 million ($58 million) aid package available to the tiny community of Lac-Megantic, said the behavior of the company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, and its president had been "absolutely deplorable."
Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said company bosses should have arrived much sooner.
"I am truly shocked that he didn't get in touch with me as quickly as possible," Roy-Laroche said of railroad chairman Ed Burkhardt.
She said she had not met with Burkhardt, who toured Lac-Megantic on Wednesday, apologized for the accident and said he felt "absolutely rotten about it."
The driverless MMA train was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude oil when it smashed into Lac-Megantic early on Saturday and exploded in a wall of fire that flattened dozens of buildings, including a packed bar.
The train was part of a vast expansion in rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America as oil output soars in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines run out of space.
Residents of Lac-Megantic are livid that MMA officials did not arrive sooner in their close-knit, lakeside town, where a third of the 6,000 residents were told to leave their homes as the fires burned.
All but 200 have now been allowed to return home, although the devastated "red zone" at the center of town is considered a crime zone and is closed to all but investigators.
Quebec police have gone over half the roped-off area, spokesman Michel Forget said, but the most difficult was yet to come because of the remaining oil and gas, as well as the tanker cars that had to be moved.
Some areas would take days and even weeks to get to, he said, adding he was confident police would find more of the missing bodies.
Burkhardt said on Wednesday he thought the train's engineer had not set enough handbrakes when he parked his train late on Friday at the end of his shift, allowing the train to accelerate downhill into town, where it derailed on a curve and exploded.
Reuters has been unable to contact the engineer, Tom Harding. A phone number listed for him in Farnham, Quebec, was disconnected and a Reuters reporter who visited his address found no one home.
"I heard yesterday and I was surprised, and saddened for him," said a neighbor living near Harding's two-story stone and vinyl-siding home with trees taking up most of his front lawn. "He is a nice man, a good neighbor," she said.
A death toll of 50 would make the accident the worst rail crash in North America since 1989, and Canada's deadliest accident since 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.
The Canadian government said it would wait for the end of the investigations before taking decisions on rail safety.
"Railway safety regulations exist to ensure the safety and protection of the public," Transport Minister Denis Lebel said. "If these regulations were not followed, we will not hesitate to take whatever course of action is available to us."
Roy-Laroche said the town would open up its main church, an imposing metal-roofed building close to the "red zone," so residents could bring flowers and tributes to the victims, and asked the media to give local people time to mourn.
The bells of the church started ringing as it and the zone around it was reopened, leaving just a small part of the city still off limits.
Neighbors hugged and cried. They unpacked and went back into the homes they had fled in panic on Saturday. The siding of some houses was curled by the intense fire, and the leaves in the trees were blackened.
"It is a relief to be back home," said Marie-Jose Boulet, 39, who lives across from the church. "It has been a nightmare since Saturday."
"I am glad the police blocked the view over there," she said, pointing to a chain-link fence with black cloth attached dividing residents from the wreckage only feet away. "I did not want to look at my town's destroyed center."
Writing by Randall Palmer and Janet Guttsman; Editing by Philip Barbara and Jim Loney