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Updated: Wed, 10 Jul 2013 01:01:45 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Death toll hits 15 in Lac-Mégantic as criminal probe launched



Death toll hits 15 in Lac-Mégantic as criminal probe launched

Two more bodies have been recovered in Lac-Mégantic, bringing the death toll to 15 after a derailment a series of resulting explosions destroyed more than 30 buildings in the heart of the small town in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Quebec provincial police Insp. Michel Forget said a criminal investigation is now underway as officers continue to comb through the rubble and search for some 40 people who are missing.

- Read: Safety rules lag as oil transport by train rises

- Watch: Town pharmacist describes tight-knit community

- Watch: Resident was getting ready for bed when she felt the ground shake

Forget didn't provide much information on why a criminal investigation was warranted, but did say that investigators had "discovered elements" that supported such a probe.

Forget said officials don't think that the incident was caused by terrorism. He said criminal negligence was one possible avenue that officials are considering as the investigation unfolds.

Police have cordoned off a "red zone" around the derailment site as some 200 officers go through the rubble and seek out bodies of the missing.

The national Transportation Safety Board is also investigating.

Train inspected 1 day before derailment

On Tuesday, officials from Transport Canada said the train involved in the fatal derailment was inspected the day before the incident.

Questions have been raised about how the train was able to roll away, out-of-control, after the engineer parked it at the end of his shift on Friday night.

Transport Canada officials would not comment on specifics of the case, but said handbrakes should always be tested using a "push-pull" test to make sure the train cannot move.

Timeline of events

On Tuesday, officials released further details on the timeline of events that led to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

The investigators said firefighters had responded to an incident at the train in the town of Nantes, about seven kilometres uphill from Lac-Mégantic, about an hour after it had been parked for the night by the operator.

The locomotive engine was shut off at that time.

After firefighters and a rail company employee left the scene, the train rolled down the hill and derailed, before several of the cars carrying crude oil exploded. The train was travelling at a rate of speed far above the approved limit when its cars left the tracks, investigators said.

Because this stretch of track is not monitored by signals, officials said rail authorities had no indication of the runaway train before the derailment.

Questions raised about train tanker cars

Meanwhile, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is raising questions about the type of "general purpose" tanker car routinely used to haul flammable materials like crude oil.

"This area is not equipped with the type of signal systems that would even show to a rail traffic controller that something was moving on the territory that they hadn't authorized," said Don Ross, the TSB's lead investigator at the scene in Lac-Mégantic, on Tuesday.

Another investigator with the TSB said the type of train car involved in the crash was also involved in an incident in Gouin, Que., several years ago. He said safety officials identified the car as a concern after the 1995 derailment resulted in a sulphuric acid leak.

Investigators said they are in the first phase of a "long process" of finding out exactly what happened in the hours and minutes leading up to the deadly explosions.

1,200 return home

A majority of the 2,000 people who have been living with friends and family or at shelters since Saturday's explosions were able to return to their homes — or what was left of them — on Tuesday.

“The house is still there, but I don’t know what condition it’s in,” said resident Lynn Barrett. “The whole environment around me has changed. We used to walk the dog in the park — there’s no park.”

Shouting matches erupted on Tuesday as some frustrated residents yelled at police, demanding they be allowed to go back to their houses.

About 800 residents with homes inside the “red-zone,” which is considered a crime scene, were allowed to go in and retreive some of their belongings, but their wait to return home is not yet over.

'It will haunt me the rest of my life'

In an exclusive interview with CBC, the president and CEO of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MM&A), said he will never forget the tragedy.

"It will haunt me for the rest of my life," said Robert Grindrod. “There isn’t anything I can say that will make it any better.”

Grindrod was careful to point out the rail company is only a transporter. “It isn’t our oil," he said.

However, he also accepted part of the blame on behalf of the company.

“Obviously we have some level of responsiblity here because it was our train,” he said.

Residents of Lac-Mégantic are expecting a visit on Wednesday from Grindrod's colleague and chair of the MM&A, Edward Burkhardt.

- Read more about Burkhardt's interview with Radio-Canada

Burkhardt stopped at Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport on Tuesday, and said he plans to visit Lac-Mégantic on Wednesday afternoon.

As the company's chair, Burkhardt is certain to face tough questions and a fair degree of anger.

He has noted he has received “a lot of hate messages" and added, “I hope I’m not going to get shot.”

Search for victims continues

Geneviève Guilbault, a spokeswoman for Quebec's coroner's office, described the red-zone as a "scene of desolation."

“Everything is burned," Guilbault said.

She said there’s no way to know how long it will take to recover all the victims, or even how many bodies they will find.

“It was such an intense disaster … We are confident we will be able to find most of them, at least we hope we will,” she said.

Danger in 'red zone'

TSB investigators have not been able to reach the site of the explosions because of continuing safety issues at the scene, but they have been able to determine the position of the controls of the locomotive — which continued travelling out the other side of the town after the derailment — and obtain information from the black box.

"There’s a lot of information that need to be validated," Ross said. There’s a lot of reports out there …. We’re following all the credible leads that we can that will help us get to the bottom of this."

He said some of their specific findings can't be released at this time, because that could compromise the ongoing investigation.

Map of the inaccessible 'Red Zone' in Lac-Mégantic

With files from The Canadian Press

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