Investigators searching for the cause of a fiery oil train derailment that wiped out a small town’s center and killed at least 13 people zeroed in on an earlier blaze on that same train, and the possibility that the series of actions that followed it might have somehow caused the locomotive’s brakes to fail several hours later.
Inspectors, meanwhile, searched for remains in the derailment’s devastated epicenter after being cleared to enter the area late on Monday — almost three days after the disaster. A total of 50 people were missing, including the 13 unidentified victims.
The rail tankers that blew up had a history of puncturing during accidents, but investigators acknowledged that it was too soon to tell whether that had been a factor in the explosions.
All but one of the train’s 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five of the train’s tankers exploded after coming loose early on Saturday, speeding downhill nearly 11km and derailing into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border. Maude Verrault, a waitress at downtown’s Musi-Cafe, was outside smoking when she spotted the blazing train barreling toward her.
“I’ve never seen a train moving so fast in my life, and I saw flames... Then someone screamed ‘the train is going to derail!’ and that’s when I ran,” Verrault said.
The rail tankers involved in the derailment are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigator told reporters by telephone on Monday.
TSB investigator Donald Ross said Canada’s saftey board has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on these tankers, though he said it was too soon to know whether a different or modified tanker would have avoided the tragedy.
Officials were also looking at a locomotive blaze on the same train in a nearby town a few hours before the derailment. Ross said the locomotive’s black box has been recovered, and investigators were examining whether the air brakes or the hand break malfunctioned.
The blasts on Saturday destroyed about 30 buildings and forced about one-third of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes.
Raymond Lafontaine, whose son and two daughters-in-law were among the missing, said he was angry with what appeared to be a lack of safety regulations.
“We always wait until there’s a big accident to change things,” he said. “Well, today [Saturday] we’ve had a big accident, it’s one of the biggest ever in Canada.”
The area remained part of a criminal probe and investigators were exploring all options, including the possibility that someone intentionally tampered with the train, Quebec Provincial Police Sergeant Benoit Richard said.
Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the train was inspected the day before the accident in Montreal and no deficiencies were found.
Lebel defended his government against criticism it had cut back on rail safety measures. He said the rails remain a safe way to transport goods the vast majority of the time.