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Updated: Wed, 10 Jul 2013 15:06:43 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Engineer in Lac-Mégantic train disaster suspended

Engineer in Lac-Mégantic train disaster suspended

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, Ed Burkhardt, the president of Railworld Inc., remained unflappable as he addressed a flurry of reporters who crowded around him.

He said the engineer has been suspended without pay.

“The fact is he’s under the police control. He’s not, as I understand, in jail, but the police have talked about prosecuting him,” Burkhardt said.

"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 .

Burkhardt was met by a crush of reporters and jeers and insults launched by residents after arriving in the town today.

Burkhardt said his company is "not accepting responsibility" while facts are still being gathered.

He defended its past safety record and said it followed industry practice.

"I think we had quite a reasonable safety record until the other day when we blew it all," he said.

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 are still missing in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

"The entire province of Quebec is in mourning since this accident," Quebec premier Pauline Marois said at a news conference following a meeting with her cabinet this morning in Quebec City.

"On behalf of all Quebecers, I offer all of my condolences to the community, the citizens of Lac-Mégantic."

Marois acknowledged the "legitimate anger" felt by people affected by the disaster in Lac-Mégantic and promised that answers would be coming.

"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 have been reported missing or remain unaccounted for, officials said this morning.

It's likely the dead are included in the official list of missing 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 missing people 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 reported missing or 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.

Investigation continues

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.

Police said they are investigating whether Saturday's derailment and subsequent explosion — which leveled 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 — 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.

Dozens of people were forced to take shelter at a temporary evacuation centre set up at the local high school.

As firefighters contained the blaze, many of the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes, where they found a mix of relief, emotional distress and unexpected problems.

- 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

"After that tragedy, after watching that fire burn half the downtown, we are happy to be back home," said Denis Leveille, 57, who spent the day on his front porch visiting with friends.

The waiting game

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.

For some of the remaining evacuees, who waited patiently at the perimeter for days, watching others allowed through was the last straw. A small group lashed out angrily at police, demanding that they be let back into their homes just a few meters away.

"We just want to go home," said one man, who was later ushered away by police. "We have rights in Quebec, no?"

Still others chose to stay far away from the once-picturesque downtown, in part because of the emotional strain of being so close to the blast zone.

Caroline Rancourt, a 37-year-old single mother, said she was at work at the Musi-Café, a favourite local hangout, hours before it was leveled by the runaway train. Eyewitnesses said the bar was packed when the train hit and burst into flames.

"It was the screams that woke me," she said. "I remember I was half asleep and I heard the cries and thought, 'It's night, why are there kids screaming?'

"Then [there was] the sound of fireworks, and then after that it was all so fast," she said, struggling to hold back tears. "We left and I didn't yet know what all had happened at the Musi-Café."

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

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