Residents Search For Answers After Deadly Train Explosion

In Lac Megantic, Quebec, locals are waiting impatiently for answers following Saturday's train explosion that left 50 people dead. The provincial government in Quebec is blasting the railroad at the center of this disaster for responding too slowly — and requesting more aid from Canada's federal government to help the rural town rebuild.

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There are still no answers about the cause of the deadly train accident that destroyed the downtown of a village in eastern Quebec. Railcars filled with oil rolled into the heart of the town on Saturday and exploded. The fireball was so large that NASA recorded the burst of light from satellites overhead. Fifty people are presumed dead. Twenty-four bodies have been recovered so far, and 26 people are missing. Officials are promising aid to help families and businesses rebuild the community. Locals say that money is desperately needed, but they also want answers, and they want someone held accountable. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has been at the scene today.


BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: There was applause today from local families as Quebec Premier Pauline Marois marched down a street near Lac-Megantic's devastated downtown. She was arm in arm with the mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche.

Marois came to meet with first responders, investigators and families still struggling to find their bearings after Saturday's deadly explosion. She says the first steps of the response are going well.

PREMIER PAULINE MAROIS: (Through Translator) We think this is a human tragedy that is profoundly sad, and we want to be here for these citizens and do everything that is possible so that the response is adequate, efficient and immediate.

MANN: This was Marois' second visit. She arrived promising $60 million in aid but says Quebec will almost certainly need help from Canada's national government. She encouraged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to visit the area as soon as possible. Marois spoke one day after the president of the railroad at the center of this disaster, Ed Burkhardt, made his own controversial appearance. During a chaotic press conference yesterday, Burkhardt defended his decision not to visit Lac-Megantic sooner.

ED BURKHARDT: I didn't think that there would be any use for me wandering around on the edge of town until the first responders had an opportunity to do their work.

MANN: Burkhardt did apologize and said he was devastated by the accident, but Premier Marois today condemned his behavior, saying that the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railroad should have done more sooner.

MAROIS: I hope he will help the community. I disagree with his behavior because I think he had to be here at the beginning of this tragedy. He was not here.

MANN: This angry exchange comes as all levels of Canada's government are scrambling to sort out exactly what happened here, how safety protocols for the rail industry went so horribly wrong. There's a massive criminal investigation under way with a large part of Lac-Megantic's downtown now cloistered behind a tall security fence. Through the day today, helicopters swept back and forth across the area now known as the red zone. More than 30 buildings were incinerated with photographs of the area showing melted steel and scorched rubble.

The engineer who last tended to the train before it broke loose has been identified by the company as Tom Harding. There are questions about whether Harding set the proper number of brakes before leaving his post late Friday night. He's been suspended and hasn't spoken publicly since the disaster. As the days pass here, local residents want more of these questions turned into answers. Guy Boulet lost his sister in Saturday's disaster and says someone should be held accountable quickly.

GUY BOULET: It's not an accident. It's negligence. I don't know how to spell the name in English.

MANN: We have the same word, negligence, yes.

BOULET: Yes, it's negligence.

MANN: Fifty people are now believed dead in Lac-Megantic, and there's still no word on when locals here will actually be able to begin rebuilding their downtown. Meanwhile, Quebec officials say roughly 26,000 gallons of oil spilled into nearby waterways, a spill that may stretch as far as 60 miles. The province today urged farmers in the area to avoid watering livestock from contaminated rivers. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.


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