Quebec police are pursuing a painstaking, wide-ranging criminal investigation of the inferno ignited by the derailment of a runaway oil train that killed at least 15 people and left dozens missing in the burned-out ruins of a downtown district.
Quebec Police Inspector Michel Forget ruled out terrorism as a cause, but on Tuesday said an array of other possibilities remain under investigation, including criminal negligence. Other officials have raised the possibility that the train was tampered with before the crash early on Saturday.
The heart of the town’s central business district is being treated as a crime scene and the 30 buildings razed by the fire and many adjacent blocks remained cordoned off.
Investigators continued searching for the missing, fearing that three dozen bodies are buried in the area closest to the tracks.
The death toll rose to 15 with the discovery of two more bodies on Tuesday. The bodies that have been recovered were burned so badly they have yet to be identified.
On the main street dowtown, Rue de Laval, police positioned a truck near the perimeter of the no-go zone, which prevented news crews from getting direct photograph and video views of the search operations being conducted by about 200 officers.
Police officials left no doubt that the hunt for the missing people was taxing — they said two officers were withdrawn from the sector because of worries about their physical condition.
“This is a very risky environment,” Quebec Provincial Police Sergeant Benoit Richard said. “We have to secure the safety of those working there. We have some hotspots on the scene. There is some gas.”
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose on Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness for nearly 11km before jumping the tracks at 101kph in Lac-Megantic, eastern Quebec, investigators said. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil and at least five exploded.
Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train’s 18-minute journey because they did know it was happening, Canadian Transportation Safety Board officials said.
Such warning systems are in place on busier lines, but not on secondary lines, Transportation Safety Board manager Ed Belkalou said.
The blasts destroyed about 30 buildings and forced about 2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes. By Tuesday, only about 800 were still barred from returning to their homes, though residents were cautioned to boil tap water before drinking it.
Efforts continued to stop waves of crude oil spilled in the disaster from reaching the St Lawrence River, the backbone of the province’s water supply.