Painful Recovery Begins In Lac-Megantic

One week after a runaway train derailed and blew up in a small Quebec town, investigators are still searching for the missing. Twenty-eight are confirmed dead. The company that operates the railroad blames the employee who parked the train for the tragedy in Lac-Megantic.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Canada, 28 bodies have been located one week after a devastating train explosion in Eastern Quebec. Railcars full of oil sped down a long hill into the heart of a small town before derailing and exploding. The death toll is expected to reach 50. North Country's Public Radio's Brian Mann, has been on the scene throughout the week and says the people are taking the first painful steps towards recovery.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: A linemen works on an electric wire in downtown Lac-Megantic, part of the massive effort here to restore basic services. A few feet away, I scramble up onto a rooftop to get a glimpse over the security fence into the red zone. The view is horrific. The center of Lac-Megantic is reduced to fields of scorched brick and wilted metal. More than 30 buildings wiped out. Another part of the downtown is still intact, weirdly untouched in fact, but that section is eerily empty now. Nearby lie a half a dozen sausage-shaped tanker cars.

WENDY TADROS: This may well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history.

MANN: That's Wendy Tadros, president of Canada's Transportation Safety Board. She visited Lac-Megantic yesterday afternoon and acknowledged that people here want answers fast. They want to know how an industrial train full of explosive cargo could roll free, unattended, into the middle of their lives. But Tadros says people will have to be patient.

TADROS: In the end, we will tell Canadians what happened, why it happened and what needs to be done to ensure it will never happen again. But today, we are a long way from there.

MANN: Tadros did give one tantalizing glimpse into her team's part of this investigation. Earlier in the week, the president of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, Ed Burkhardt, appeared to point much of the blame at one of his employees. Burkhardt suggested that an engineer, Tom Harding, may not have set enough brakes on the train last Friday night before leaving it unattended.

But Tadros says her agency's probe will focus on the railway company's wider operations, not solely on that one engineer.

TADROS: No accident is every caused by one thing and it's always a series of things and it always involves the organization and the way that they operate. It never comes down to one individual.

MANN: While investigators do their work, the family members of those lost flock to St. Agnes Church which sits on the edge of the red zone, with people arriving through the day in small groups. Just up the block from the church, I find a store that's reopened. Guy Boulet is sitting behind the counter.

GUY BOULET: Furniture and appliance, my father founded this store more than 50 years.

MANN: The store seems normal, so I start to ask Boulet about his business, about the impact this disaster will have on his livelihood. At the last moment, it occurs to me to ask whether he lost any loved ones in Saturday's blast. He pauses and then nods.

BOULET: Yes, my family is directly affect. I lost a sister. She owned a small business right in the middle of the downtown.

MANN: Marie France Boulet's sister ran a lingerie store. Her shop and the little apartment where she lived were incinerated. There is a criminal probe underway, but inspector Michel Forget with Quebec Police says his team has only been able to reach about half the damaged area.

INSPECTOR MICHEL FORGET: The train that's behind us, there's some petroleum that's still in there, there's some gasses emanations. This is why we are acting very, very slowly.

MANN: There is another big complication. Lac-Megantic is an industrial town. A lot of jobs here rely on manufacturing and the wood products industry. Those companies rely on the railroad to ship raw materials and goods. Transportation officials say an important step for Lac-Megantic's recovery will be to get the trains running again.

There is talk of shifting the tracks to avoid the village's downtown. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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