OTTAWA (Reuters) - As investigators seek reasons for the deadly train crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last month and the huge “abnormal” fire it caused, they are focusing on the nature of the fuel cargo as well as the brakes, tanker cars, and locomotive, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) said on Thursday.
TSB officials told a news conference that its investigation into the July 6 railway accident, North America’s worst in two decades, would last for months and that it was too early to draw conclusions.
They raised doubts about the nature of the petroleum cargo on the runaway train, which was listed as hauling 50,000 barrels of crude oil when it derailed and smashed into the center of the small lakeside town near the Maine border, exploding in a blast that killed 47 people.
“We want to make sure that the dangerous goods that were involved here were properly described, properly packaged in the right tankers, and we’re going to check into all those things,” said lead TSB investigator Donald Ross.
“It was shipped as a class 3, packing group 3, flammable liquid, and some of the fire characteristics didn’t appear to be similar to that,” Ross said.
Class 3 hazardous materials include a wide range of petroleum products, from thick, tarry crude oil to very thin and volatile jet fuel. There are three packing groups within class 3, depending on the product being shipped.
Ed Belkaloul, a TSB official in charge of rail operations in Quebec and the Maritimes region, said: “It would seem that the crude oil reacted in an abnormal way.”
The TSB said a lab analysis of samples from tanker cars will help answer questions about the ferocity of the explosions and the fire. But officials stressed that the fuel analysis is only one of numerous tests they are conducting.
The train was operated by Maine-based Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which has already laid off staff and reduced its operations.
MMA says it is waiting for insurance money to help fund clean-up operations. But with costs and lawsuits piling up, Chairman Ed Burkhardt suggested to CBC Radio that the railway might not survive.
“This may cost us our company. This may cost us our investment, cost the employees their jobs, the customers in Quebec, in Maine, their rail service,” he said on Wednesday.
Another big question facing the TSB is whether the hand brakes were properly applied on the train by the lone engineer who parked it overnight before heading to a hotel.
Investigators will also look at the crash-worthiness of the tanker cars, test brakes and wheels recovered from the wreckage, analyze the braking force required to prevent a train of that weight and size from rolling downhill, and do simulations to learn about the accident sequence.
The TSB said it will review data from the locomotive event recorder, the equivalent of a plane’s “black box”, and test the locomotive’s speed and the reaction of the air brakes.
“We need to be thorough and it will take months,” said Donald Ross, the investigator in charge at TSB. “We will find out how and why this happened so that it will hopefully never happen again.”
Quebec police said on Thursday they have given up the search for more bodies, after finding the remains of 42 people. Five people are still missing and presumed dead.
Some 38 of the bodies have been identified so far.
As the town holds funerals and begins its recovery process, questions have arisen over who will pay for the costly cleanup.
The Quebec government has ordered privately owned MMA and the fuel transport provider, World Fuel Services Corp, to finance the cleanup.
World Fuel Services, which handled the logistics of transporting the oil from North Dakota to the intended destination in New Brunswick, has questioned the legality of the Quebec government’s order.
It highlighted on Wednesday that it had no contract with MMA but dealt only with Canadian Pacific Railway, which subcontracted a portion of the route to MMA.
Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Janet Guttsman; and Peter Galloway