8 victims ID'd in Lac-Mégantic, coroner's office says
28 people now confirmed dead by Quebec provincial police
The Quebec coroner's office says it has confirmed the identity of another seven victims in Lac-Mégantic, raising the total number of known victims to eight.
The victims' families are being notified and the identities of the deceased will be made public in 24 hours, coroner's office spokesperson Geneviève Guilbault said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
Sûreté du Québec Insp. Michel Forget said an additional four people have been confirmed dead after the July 6 derailment and explosion of a runaway train carrying oil, raising the total number of deceased to 28, and another 22 presumed dead.
Forget said because of gas fumes emanating from contaminated soil, police investigators had to change their search area. He said they are ventilating the zone before returning to the contaminated area.
The investigation into the cause of the massive train derailment in the Quebec town will likely take months, the Transportation Safety Board said Friday.
"We will ensure Canadians get the answers they need," TSB chair Wendy A. Tadros said at a press conference in the town. "We have made this investigation absolutely our top priority."
"We need to find the facts, stick to these facts and speak to these facts only when we know for sure," Tadros said. "It will be a complex investigation. It will be intensive. It will take months or more."
Still waiting for full access to site
TSB investigators have not yet gained access to the entire derailment site, because police and the coroner's office have not completed their work and the area is still contaminated and not secure, the TSB officials said.
"We have to make sure we get in there and document that evidence, but we have to keep our employees safe," Tadros said.
As part of the TSB investigation, the federal agency will be looking at the gradient of the railway track, the weight of the train and the number of brakes that were deployed at the time of the accident.
Investigators will use a method called photogrammetry to take pictures of the accident site from various angles and construct a 3D model of the site in order to determine what caused the oil tank cars to start rolling down the track and into the town of 6,000.
"We have investigated hundreds and hundreds of rail accidents and many runaways," Tadros said. "The science is the same, and the TSB has to follow the science and be careful not draw any premature conclusions.…
"If along the way, we discover urgent safety issues, we will act quickly to make those known to Transport Canada and the railway industry, so they can take action immediately."
'Never comes down to one individual'
When asked whether the TSB investigation will be focusing on the engineer who was in charge of deploying the train's brakes and who left the train unattended as per company practice during a scheduled shift change, Tadros said the agency will be speaking to all individuals who had anything to do with the train and with the company.
"No accident is ever caused by one thing," she said. "It is always a series of things and always involves the organization and the way that they operate. It never comes down to one individual."
But the CEO of the railway's parent company, Edward Burkhardt, blamed the engineer Tom Harding for failing to set the brakes properly.
Harding was away from the train when it began rolling downhill toward the town, eventually going off the tracks and setting off a series of massive explosions and fires. The owner of the train's operator, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, has speculated that the engineer might have not set enough handbrakes before he left the train.
Guy Farrell, spokesperson for the United Steelworkers Union, spoke with CBC News Friday, claiming that Burkhardt was trying to use Harding as a scapegoat.
Farrell would not comment on the specifics of the derailment, pending multiple investigations but added that as far as the union is aware, Harding's has "a clean record" and is "one of the most experienced engineers for MMA."
The TSB officials said Friday that they will be looking at whether MMA and its parent company, Chicago-based Rail World Inc., met all necessary safety standards and will be releasing the safety records of all major rail companies and short-rail companies under federal jurisdiction on the TSB website. Some of those statistics have already been posted and can be viewed here.
Public inquiry possible
The TSB investigation is separate from the police investigation and any potential provincial public inquiry that could take place.
Quebec Transportation Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said at a press conference in Lac-Mégantic Friday that his government has not ruled out a public inquiry.
He also said that moving the railway tracks out of town is a possibility but that authorities have to consider the impact such a move would have on the town's economy.
MMA's Lac-Mégantic route was part of a vast expansion in rail shipments of crude oil throughout North America that has occurred as oil output has soared in Canada and North Dakota and pipelines have run out of space.
"Everything is on the table," Gaudreault said. "[But] we understand that having rail tracks in a town like this also helps develop the town. We shouldn't penalize the town twice."
Gaudreault was in Lac-Mégantic to show solidarity with residents and assure Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche of his "unconditional support," he said.
He met with local officials to review the status of the town's emergency plan and discuss how the $60 million in aid the provincial government has promised will be spent. He also met with residents who were forced out of their homes as a result of the disaster and are staying in a shelter set up at a local high school.
"We have to move step by step," Gaudreault said. "I met people in the high school who are still wondering where to find food. We have to answer those questions."
One week on, many still struggling
Saturday will mark one week since the rail disaster, and vigils are planned for Friday night and early Saturday morning across Quebec as well as in the neighbouring U.S. states of Maine and Vermont to remember the dead and support those still struggling with the aftermath of the disaster.
Friends and loved ones of the missing and the dead were planning to gather at the local high school in Lac-Mégantic at 1:15 a.m. ET, the time at which disaster struck the small Quebec town a week ago Saturday. But police and Lac-Mégantic's mayor have since advised people to hold smaller, personal vigils instead, fearing that too many people from neighbouring towns would show up for the event.
Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said the community will eventually organize a communal event to mourn the victims but that she would prefer people remain in their homes and hold private memorials for now.
On Saturday morning, the local church will ring its bells 50 times — once for each of those feared dead.
Vigils are planned in Montreal, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and as far away as Manitoba, as well as in some of the U.S. states that neighbour Quebec communities. Lac-Mégantic is a town of about 6,000 people located in Quebec's Eastern Townships region near the Maine border.
The mayor said she has been touched by the outpouring of support from neighbouring areas but said she doesn't want the disaster to hurt the tourism of the whole region.
"They were getting cancellation calls," she said. "I don't want the whole area to be touched by the catastrophe we're experiencing here in Mégantic. My message is: before you cancel, communicate with the tourism authority for the whole area. Those [other areas] weren't affected."
Access to red zone still restricted
The town is still very much in disarray a week after the July 6 derailment. The shells of the burned train have not been removed, and residents are also facing public health concerns and cleanup of the debris and oil dispersed by the runaway rail cars.
The worst-hit area of town, dubbed the red zone, remains closed to the public. Police have erected a 2.5-metre fence around the zone, blocking from view what was once the downtown core of restaurants, bars and shops — but which now resembles a blackened war zone.
Roy-Laroche told the media Friday that she is not sure when the residents whose homes are inside the zone will be able to return.
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"If they weren't able to get back home, it's because we can't ensure their safety," she said. "We are assessing the situation every hour. Are we talking about weeks? Months? I will ask the [emergency] services to give more precise information to those citizens so they know exactly what to expect, but I can't tell you more at this point."
The explosion and fire set off by the derailment forced a third of Lac-Mégantic's residents out of their homes. All but 200 have now been allowed to return home, and the town's boil water advisory has been lifted.
Mayor Roy-Laroche says the city has received $25 million to help plan the reconstruction of the devastated downtown core, and a financial assistance program for residents will be open as early as Monday.
A benefit concert for Lac-Mégantic was also announced Friday, to take place at Le National in Montreal on July 17. Hockey players from the NHL have agreed to donate items for a silent auction that will be part of the benefit event.