Police said Thursday that four more bodies have been found in Lac-Mégantic following the train derailment that set off a series of explosions in the town's busy core. That raises the confirmed death toll to 24. About 50 people are believed to have died.
Yesterday, families with relatives still missing were told by police to prepare for the worst.
Insp. Michel Forget of the Quebec provincial police said crews have finished searching half of the disaster site. He said the remaining portion was the hardest hit by the explosions.
The Quebec coroner's office also released the identity of one of the victims as 93-year-old Elianne Parenteau.
600 return home
The mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Colette Roy-Laroche, announced Thursday that another 600 residents of the Cousineau sector of the town will be allowed to return home tomorrow.
About 2,000 people were forced from their homes after a train carrying crude oil derailed in the centre of town and set off a series of fatal explosions on Saturday. After today's announcement, only about 200 evacuees will remain.
While most of those people have been able to stay with friends or family, 10 evacuees are homeless. The mayor said she expects the temporary shelter set up in the local high school will close in the coming few days, and alternative arrangements will be made for anyone who is still unable to return home.
The mayor also took time during Wednesday's news conference to officially announce the town has entered a state of emergency, which will remain in effect until another declaration is made.
Police deny rumours of looting
In a press conference on Thursday, Insp. Forget addressed rumours of looting, saying they are not true. He said there have been no reports of theft in the tight-knit community.
One individual, a 53-year-old man, was arrested after he attempted to cross the taped-off red-zone. Forget would not say whether the man was a member of the media, but he did confirm the man was not a local resident.
Premier Pauline Marois visits town
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois was on scene in Lac-Mégantic Thursday morning to meet with officials and lay out the compensation plan announced by the province for survivors in the devastated community.
Marois met with Roy-Laroche, who has been praised for her dedication to the town's 6,000 citizens in the wake of the disaster.
Roy-Laroche clung to Marois as the two walked through the street for a media photo opportunity before the premier's news conference this morning.
"I'm not used to this," she said to the premier as a throng of media captured the event.
Marois reiterated the plans announced by the government yesterday to make $60 million in aid available to the community.
Marois first travelled to the town Sunday, the day after the derailment. On Thursday, she said she had returned today to ensure that people were getting the help they needed.
Town mourns victims
A temporary memorial site for the victims will open on Friday at one of the local churches, the eglise Ste-Agnès.
Mayor Roy-Laroche said the church will stay open day and night, and she invited families to visit and bring souvenirs and flowers to remember their loved ones.
"The town is doing everything it can to help residents return to their normal — of course it's relative when I say "normal" — lives as soon as possible," Roy-Laroche said.
The first victim to be identified, Elianne Parenteau, was described by her son as an "an industrious homemaker and neighbour" who was famous for her strawberry-rhubarb pies, according to an article in The Star.
A photo on Michel Boulanger's Facebook page shows the charred lot where his mother's house once stood. He wrote that his mother loved her home, which is shown in another photo surrounded by snow-topped hedges
Railway boss jeered by locals
Attention shifted yesterday to the CEO of the railway's parent company, who faced jeers from local residents. Edward Burkhardt, the head of the train's U.S.-based parent company, blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down an 11-kilometre incline, derailed and ignited in the center of Lac-Mégantic early Saturday. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
The crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of rail to transport oil in North America, especially in the booming North Dakota oil fields and Alberta oil sands far from the sea.
Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway's parent company, Rail World Inc., has drawn scorn on all fronts for his lack of presence in the community since the disaster.
The railway boss was shouted down by angry residents when he arrived in town on Wednesday.
- Is Burkhardt's talk on Lac-Mégantic too blunt?
Mayor Roy-Laroche said she was "shocked" that Burkhardt had not attempted to speak with her sooner.
"I think that out of respect for the citizens, he should have communicated with us much faster," she said.
Premier Marois was also quick to condemn Burkhardt, calling his attitude "deplorable" and "unacceptable."
Today, she reiterated those sentiments, saying the company should have been on the ground earlier.
Burkhardt, who arrived in town with a police escort, said he had delayed his visit in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials in different places.
"I understand the extreme anger," he said. "We owe an abject apology to the people in this town."
Railway CEO blames engineer
Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash. The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape.
Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees' actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer.
"We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?" Burkhardt said. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that's not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don't."
- Lac-Mégantic marks Canada’s 7th runaway train since 2006
Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec. Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.
- Quotes from head of rail company in Lac-Mégantic explosion
- Read: Lac-Mégantic victims pose challenge for forensic experts
Among the residents looking on as Burkhardt spoke was Raymond Lafontaine, who is believed to have lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster.
"That man, I feel pity for him," Lafontaine said. "Maybe some who know him properly may think he's the greatest guy in the world, but with his actions, the wait that took place, it doesn't look good."
With files from The Associated Press
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