The engineer in charge of the train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic is "under police control," according to the head of the rail company.
At an impromptu news conference on Wednesday, Ed Burkhardt, the president of Rail World Inc., remained unflappable as he addressed a flurry of reporters who crowded around him.
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 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.”
The train was parked by the engineer late Friday night, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada which is investigating the incident.
The engineer then left the train and 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 exploded in the centre of Lac-Mégantic.
- Images of the aftermath of train disaster in Quebec
Burkhardt said the company had originally trusted the engineer when he told them he had applied all 11 hand brakes. However, he said 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.
1-person train crews safer, says railway head
Burkhardt's failure to visit the community since Saturday's disaster has stirred angry reactions among many Lac-Mégantic residents.
The head of the rail company arrived in the town on Wednesday for the first time, and was met by a crush of reporters and jeers and insults launched by residents. He said he has received threats every day since the fatal derailment.
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.
- Head of train company in Quebec derailment defends rail line's safety record
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.
Flags lowered in Quebec
Flags in Quebec's public buildings 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 due course, business and the necessary authorities will have to be held accountable," Marois told a news conference this morning in Quebec City, where her government announced $60 million in emergency aid for the community.
"Never should such an event have occurred. There are too many questions to be asked. Answers will have to be forthcoming."
The death toll in the small community east of Montreal remains at 15, but 60 people in total are unaccounted for, officials said this morning.
It's likely the dead are included in the official list of unaccounted for persons.
Marois said residents can immediately access $1,000 in financial assistance to help with food, shelter and cleanup in the town.
Other funds will be made available to those who suffered significant property damage.
The province plans to have an office set up in the community by Monday and to ensure that citizens who need immediate help get a cheque the same day, she said.
At least 30 buildings were levelled by blasts in the town's core. The province has offered the town funds to cover the loss in property tax from those businesses and more assistance to business owners to help with relocation and paying employees.
Marois said her government has been in touch with federal cabinet ministers to inform them of the province's plan and will eventually make a request for assistance from Ottawa.
"We want the maximum aid we can get," she said, adding it's not clear yet how they will share costs with the federal government.
"I know this is a small consolation, but we will be there as long as it takes to rebuild a modern, attractive downtown and help the citizens of this community."
Earlier this morning, Quebec provincial police said their list of people unaccounted for had grown from 50 names to 60.
"You have to understand that, yes, we do have a list, and we are not publicizing it because of double victimization that could occur when people on this list are [turning up] afterward," said Insp. Michel Forget.
Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman for Quebec's coroner's office, said the bodies of the 15 people already recovered have been transferred to Montreal, but no identifications have been confirmed.
Unofficial lists of people unaccounted for have been published on social media, but no official list has been released.
Forget stressed that the Quebec provincial police haven't released their list because people are being added and removed quickly as police speak with more people and others are located.
He described standing beside one person who was devastated after seeing the name and photo of a loved one published in the media. The person was not missing, he said.
He urged anyone who has spoken to police and can help update the file to get in touch with investigators immediately.
"You have to understand, and we are reiterating here, that the people who are missing, a relative, a close friend has to contact us if they’ve been in contact with them since Saturday," he said.
Investigators sifted through the charred remains of Lac-Mégantic's historic downtown early Wednesday morning, as they searched for clues into what could turn out to be North America's worst railway disaster since 1989.
- Read: Lac-Mégantic victims pose challenge for forensic experts
- Watch: Shocking new Lac-Mégantic explosion video emerges
- Read: More about railway CEO's interview with Radio-Canada
Police 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.
"We are conducting a criminal investigation. We are not neglecting anything so far," Forget told reporters yesterday. This morning, he said officers worked through the night looking for evidence and remains.
In Quebec, it's the Crown's office that lays criminal charges, not the police. Forget said investigators will turn over all the information they gather to the Crown, who will then make a decision on whether or not charges will be filed.
The Transportation Safety Board said it was looking into whether the train's operator — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) — followed proper safety procedures in the hours before the unmanned 72-car train carrying crude oil rolled down a hill and slammed into town.
The incident forced some 2,000 people, or roughly a third of the town's population, to leave their homes and seek shelter in local schools or with friends and family. Most of those people were able to return home on Tuesday.
With parts of the town still considered dangerous — and part of it still a crime scene — emergency officials could not say when the remainder of the evacuees, about 800 people, would be permitted home.
Rail company has long history of accidents
MMA executives 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.
- Watch: Town pharmacist describes tight-knit community
- Watch: Resident was getting ready for bed when she felt the ground shake
- Read: Safety rules lag as oil transport by train rises
But it remains unclear whether the train's conductor 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