Lac-Mégantic families with unaccounted for relatives have been told by police to prepare for the worst, in the wake of the fatal train derailment that scarred the heart of the Quebec town.
On Wednesday, police announced that five more bodies had been recovered, bringing the confirmed death toll up to 20.
Only one of those bodies has been identified, and police have notified the family.
In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Quebec provincial police Insp. Michel Forget said police had completed the difficult process of meeting with the families of the 50 people who remain unaccounted for.
"We’ve met with the families of these deceased or potentially deceased persons … we informed them of the potential loss of their nears,” Forget said.
Train engineer suspended without pay
The controversial president of Rail World Inc., Ed Burkhardt, held an impromptu news conference on Wednesday shortly after he arrived in the small community.
Rail World Inc. is the parent company of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), which owns the train that derailed and set off a series of fatal explosions at 1 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Burkhardt's failure to visit the community since Saturday's disaster had stirred angry reactions among many Lac-Mégantic residents.
However, the head of the railway company remained unflappable as he addressed a flurry of reporters who crowded around him.
He said the engineer in charge of the train that derailed is "under police control."
Burkhardt said the engineer has been suspended without pay in the wake of the police investigation. He said he believes police have discussed prosecuting the engineer.
"I don't think he'll be back working with us," he told reporters shortly after he arrived in the town this afternoon.
“It was our employee that was responsible for setting the brakes on the train … That employee is under investigation and is not working.”
Timeline of events
The train was parked by the engineer late Friday night, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada which is investigating the incident.
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Burkhardt said the company had originally trusted their employee when he told them he had applied 11 hand brakes, which would normally properly secure the 72-car train.
However, Burkhardt said on Wednesday he now has his doubts about the engineer's story.
“We think that he applied some handbrakes, the problem is that he didn’t apply enough of them,” he said.
After the engineer finished his shift, he went to sleep at a nearby hotel. A short time later, a fire was reported on the train and another railway employee was brought in, according to the TSB. After firefighters and the rail worker had left the scene, the train started to roll downhill, derailed and several of its cars carrying crude oil exploded in the centre of Lac-Mégantic.
1-person train crews safer, says railway head
While he was quick to assign blame to the train engineer, Burkhardt also defended his company's safety record.
He said his company is "not accepting responsibility" while facts are still being gathered. He defended its past safety record and said the company follows industry practice.
"I think we had quite a reasonable safety record until the other day when we blew it all," he said.
Some have questioned whether the one-person crew could have played a role in the derailment, but Burkhardt went so far as to suggest that having fewer employees on board can be safer.
“We think the one-man crews are safer than two-men crews because there’s less exposure for employee injuries, less distraction," he said.
Transport Canada officials said on Tuesday that one-person train crews are not against regulations, as long as they meet certain safety standards.
Province announces $60 million in aid
Flags at Quebec's public buildings as well as flags on Canada's Peace Tower will be lowered to half-mast for a week as Quebecers honour those who died and those who are still unaccounted for in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.
"The entire province of Quebec is in mourning since this accident," Quebec premier Pauline Marois said on Monday, in a press conference that unveiled $60 million in emergency aid for the community.
"In due course, business and the necessary authorities will have to be held accountable," Marois said.
"Never should such an event have occurred. There are too many questions to be asked. Answers will have to be forthcoming."
The federal government reiterated its support on Wednesday, saying it would “act swiftly and efficiently to ensure help is delivered” once it receives an evaluation of the services needed from the province.
Investigators continue to sift through the charred remains of Lac-Mégantic's historic downtown, as they search for clues into what could turn out to be North America's worst railway disaster since 1989.
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Donald Ross, who is serving as the Transportation Safety Board's (TSB) lead investigator, told CBC's Evan Solomon that the investigation is very complex and there is still a lot of information to obtain and a lot of people left to talk to.
"We're not going to be biased as to one type of accident or another that resulted in this terrible accident," Ross said.
He said investigators are going to "check everything," including the handbrake system as they move through their investigation.
"The braking systems and how was the train was secured is obviously a primary focus, but we're also looking at the issues around the performance of those tankers," Ross said in an exclusive interview with CBC's Power & Politics.
"We want to find out what happened. We want to prevent it from happening again."
Police have said they are investigating whether Saturday's derailment and subsequent explosion — which levelled the centre of the lakeside Quebec town — involved foul play or criminal negligence.
Rail company has long history of accidents
Executives with the train's operating company — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) — have said they believe the train's air brakes failed while it was parked in the neighbouring town of Nantes, after firemen shut down the engine to put out a fire that erupted on Friday night.
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But it remains unclear whether the train's engineer had set enough hand brakes — which are meant to hold a train in place even if the air brakes fail — before he left the train for a shift change shortly before the fire broke out.
MMA, which is headquartered in Chicago, has a long history of accidents in Canada, according to Transportation Safety Board data, which shows 129 accidents, including 77 derailments — some of them minor — since 2003.
A TSB official said she could not immediately say how that compared to other rail operators in the country.
With files from Reuters
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