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Death toll rises to 13 after Quebec train explosion

09 July 2013

On July 8 officials said they had found eight additional bodies following the explosion of a train carrying hundreds of tons of crude oil at Lac Mégantic in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. This brings the confirmed number of deaths to 13, but there more than 40 townsfolk and visitors still unaccounted for. 

The provincial coroner’s office has called in specialists to help identify the human remains using tooth and bone fragments. Families of the suspected victims have been asked on live television to report to the local high school with toothbrushes, combs, razors, hats or anything else that might bear DNA fragments of those who have not returned home.

According to reports, the train could have had its brakes deactivated by firefighters who were called to extinguish a blaze in one of the five locomotives hauling the 73 tanker cars when it stopped at a yard in Nantes, above Lac Mégantic. The engineer had left the train earlier, and it was driverless when it rolled downhill 11 kilometres and derailed in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, blowing up and flattening dozens of buildings.

The rail company has said the brakes will not work if the train is switched off. A spokesman said the engineer had left one locomotive running to ensure the air brakes worked.

The Nantes fire service told Reuters it had put out an engine fire in one of the locomotives late on Friday.

Andre Gendron, who lives next to the railyard in Nantes, said he was burning a campfire outside his trailer on Friday night when he heard the fire trucks. "About five minutes after the firemen left, I felt the vibration of a train moving down the track. I then saw the train move by without its lights on," Gendron told Reuters.

"I found it strange its lights weren't on and thought it was an electrical problem on board. It wasn't long after that I heard the explosion. I could see the light from the fires in Lac Megantic."

Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said his crew had switched off the locomotive late on Friday as they extinguished a "good-sized" blaze in the motor, probably caused by a fuel or oil line break in the engine.

"We shut down the engine before fighting the fire," he told Reuters in an interview. "Our protocol calls for us to shut down an engine because it is the only way to stop the fuel from circulating into the fire."

The tanker train's operator, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the engineer had parked the train in Nantes and left one locomotive running to ensure the air brakes worked properly.

The company's chairman told the Toronto Star the brakes will not work if a train is switched off. "If the operating locomotive is shut down, there's nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can't be held in place any longer," Ed Burkhardt said.

Crash investigators said they will look at two sets of brakes on the train, the air brakes and the hand brakes, as they probe what could turn into Canada's deadliest rail accident since 1956.

Lambert said once the blaze was out, the Nantes fire service contacted Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. "We told them what we did and how we did it," he said.

Asked whether there had been any discussion about the brakes, he replied: "There was no discussion of the brakes at that time. We were there for the train fire. As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them."

Montreal Maine & Atlantic is one of many North American railroads that have vastly increased shipments of crude oil as pipelines from North Dakota and from oil-producing regions in Western Canada fill to capacity. The accident is bound to raise concern about the practice of transporting oil by rail.

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