Quebec town is bracing for rising death toll as firefighters reach hardest hit areas The air brakes on the runaway oil train that devastated a Quebec town early Saturday had been disabled by firefighters who were called to extinguish a blaze aboard one of the locomotives 90 minutes before the disaster, the head of the railway said Monday.
The news came as authorities recovered eight more bodies from the devastation in Lac-Megantic, raising the death toll to 13, with about 40 people still missing and feared dead.
The train exploded in a series of fireballs after it careened eight miles down a sloping track and derailed about 1 a.m. ET Saturday. All but one of the 73 tanker cars were carrying crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick, and at least five exploded.
Volunteer firefighters in nearby Nantes had been called about 11:30 p.m. Friday to extinguish a blaze in one of the five locomotives, Fire Chief Patrick Lambert toldThe Montreal Gazette.
He told Reuters that firefighters had shut down the locomotive while they battled the fire, which was apparently caused by a broken oil or fuel line. But the train's crew had left the engine idling to keep the air brakes pressurized so the train wouldn't roll, said Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
Lambert said the local railway dispatcher was contacted to report the engine fire had been put out. "We told them what we did and how we did it," he said.
"There was no discussion of the brakes at that time," he added. "We were there for the train fire. As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them."
What the dispatcher did after speaking with the Nantes fire service was not immediately clear. Burkhardt said that if the engine had been shut down, "someone should have made a report to the local railroad about that." He said the train's operator was staying at a nearby hotel.
Andre Gendron, who lives next to the rail yard, told Reuters that about five minutes after firefighters left, "I felt the vibration of a train moving down the track. I then saw the train move by without its lights on."
"It wasn't long after that I heard the explosion," he said.
As searchers slowly worked their way through the smoldering devastation Monday, firefighters doused two oil-filled cars with water and foam to keep them from overheating and exploding.
Many of those missing were believed to have been drinking at a popular downtown bar in the lakeside town of 6,000, near the Maine border. Crews had not yet reached the night spot, Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said Monday morning.
Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and about 20 acquaintances remained unaccounted for.
"I have a friend who was smoking outside the bar when it happened, and she barely got away, so we can guess what happened to the people inside," Huot said. "It's like a nightmare."
A coroner's spokeswoman said it may not be possible to recover some of the bodies because of the intensity of the blasts. Spokeswoman Geneviève Guilbault said the bodies are so badly burned that identifying them could take a long time.
The explosion and flames forced about a third of the community of 6,000 from their homes. About 1,500 may be able to return home Tuesday, authorities said.