LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, (Reuters) – Canadian police yesterday said they had opened a criminal investigation into the train explosion that likely killed 50 people in Lac-Megantic, and some 200 officers were scouring the town’s devastated center for clues.
Inspector Michel Forget said police did not believe terrorism was involved when a runaway train hauling 72 cars of crude oil barreled into town early on Saturday, derailed on a curve and exploded into a huge fireball that destroyed the center of the lakeside community.
“I will not speculate on the evidence that we’ve recovered because (it is) secret,” Forget said. But he indicated that some evidence might point to “criminal acts.”
“We don’t think the terrorism aspect is a part of that,” he added. “Criminal negligence might be one of the leads we are looking at.”
Almost a third of the town’s 6,000 residents were evacuated from their homes as firefighters from Canada and the nearby U.S. states of Maine and Vermont struggled to bring the massive blaze under control. Just over half have been allowed back.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic, which owned the train, is one of many North American railroads that have vastly stepped up crude-by-rail deliveries as producers seek alternatives to pipelines that have been stretched to capacity by higher output in Canada and North Dakota.
The oil in the train that crashed was being transported from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to eastern Canada.
Police have found 15 bodies, but residents hold out little hope that the 35 or so people still missing will be found alive in an incident that could turn into North America’s worst rail disaster since 1989.
Officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said more than a dozen investigators were examining every angle of the accident, although even they had not yet gained access to the central “red zone.”
CARS AND BRAKES
Key elements of the TSB probe, led by investigator Donald Ross, will include the strength of the widely used DOT-111 cylindrical tanker cars that carried the crude, as well as how the train, almost a mile (1.6 km) long, was secured for the night on a stretch of rail line in Nantes some eight miles (13 km) from Lac-Megantic.
Industry rules say engineers must set enough of a train’s handbrakes to ensure it cannot move, and then test that they have done a proper job. Ross said his team cannot check whether the brakes were set until it can enter the center of town and examine the pile of derailed cars.