LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — From Parc de la Croix, a hilltop green space dominated by a 70-foot steel cross, the nearby town of Lac-Megantic looks peaceful.
Only a closer look into the bucolic valley, split by a lazy river, reveals the disaster that has broken hearts across the town of 6,000 — the railway cars strewn throughout its center that have barely stopped smoldering, and the blackened, cordoned-off zone around them.
At least 15 people were killed and another 45 remained missing after the weekend crash of a runaway train carrying tank cars full of oil, Quebec provincial authorities said. Those still missing are feared dead, possibly vaporized by the resulting inferno.
The head of the railway that owned the train was heckled as he visited the town Wednesday afternoon, questioning the account of his own engineer in a contentious gaggle with reporters.
“He’s worked for us for many years. He’s a guy who had a completely clear safety record up until Saturday,” said Edward Burkhardt, CEO of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. But the engineer had told investigators that he set 11 handbrakes on the train before it broke away. “Our general feeling is now that is not true,” Burkhardt said.
The engineer has been suspended without pay, said Burkhardt, who was being interviewed by Canadian authorities Wednesday afternoon.
As he faced reporters upon his arrival, two middle-aged men shouted at him, calling him an obscene name and challenging him to walk into the heart of the disaster. One of the men, Pierre L’Heureux, told CNN he knew at least half the people who were dead or missing.
“They should put that guy in prison,” L’Heureux said. “He’s a murderer … he should be in prison.”
Burkhardt said he felt “personally, absolutely rotten” about the crash and said his company had “plenty of responsibility” — but whether it was totally responsible “was “yet to be determined.”
Hundreds of evacuees — mostly older residents — were taking refuge at a school. A security worker stopped reporters from walking past a certain point, keeping them away from those resting inside. In the beginning, there were 2,000 people who were forced to flee their homes, said Myrian Marotte, a spokeswomman from the Canadian Red Cross.
“Everyone here knows someone who was evacuated,” Marotte said. Nevertheless, she added, “You see a lot of solidarity and resilience.”
A few blocks away, Michel Gagnon had returned to his home and was eating lunch on his patio with relatives. Gagnon said Lac-Megantic’s downtown had lost everything, but within a few years, “everything will be back up,” he said.
Burkhardt said he planned to arrange a meeting with Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche, who told reporters earlier that she had had no contact with Burkhardt regarding his visit. When asked by a reporter at a Wednesday morning news conference if she would meet with him, she declined to answer. Capt. Michel Forget of the Quebec Provincial Police also would not say if he would talk to the rail chief.
Meanwhile, Burkhardt says he’s been getting hate mail.
It didn’t help when he told reporters where part of the responsibility lies.
“I think the fire department played a role in this,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s incontrovertible.”
Burkhardt said he does not blame firefighters in the neighboring town of Nantes who put out a minor blaze on the train some time before it began rolling downhill. But he said what they thought was due diligence may have actually helped turn the parked locomotive train into a runaway oil bomb.
The fire department in Nantes has rejected the notion.
Crime and blame
In Lac-Megantic, investigators have asked fire crews to stop spraying down the wreckage to preserve as much of the remaining evidence as possible. Some of it has led them to believe that a “criminal act” may have contributed to the train crash, Forget said Tuesday.
The investigation into the cause of the disaster has shifted its focus to possible foul play.
“We are no longer treating this as just an accident,” Quebec police spokesman Benoit Richard said Wednesday.
However, Forget said, law enforcement officials will lay no blame until the evidence and investigation shows exactly what happened.
The gutted center of town and the crumpled hulls of the tanker cars are now a crime scene. Firefighters are still monitoring hot spots in the wreckage, a fire official said Wednesday.
Getting back to business
All businesses and factories in the affected region that are able were reopening Wednesday morning, Roy-Laroche said.
Tuesday, some 1,200 residents were allowed to return to their homes in the area. Another 800 were still being kept away due to the investigation and safety issues, authorities said.
The mayor said the Red Cross would begin distributing vouchers Wednesday to those returning home for food and other essential items. The funds for the vouchers were donated by people in the community and businesses in the region, Roy-Laroche said.
And the mayor urged tourists not to cancel their reservations in the area, noting that some 300,000 people visit the region between May and October every year.
Roy-Laroche also thanked people from around the world who sent messages in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“All these messages give us the strength to face this catastrophe,” she said.
Fire officials also remarked on the help pouring in. They said firefighters had been coming to the area from across Quebec and even from Maine, where a fire department sent ladders and trucks the crews in Lac-Megantic desperately needed.
Where there’s smoke
Nine black tanker cars filled with crude oil still stand silently in the town of Nantes.
They remained behind when the rest of the train they were attached to broke away and began rolling early Saturday down an incline, seven miles uphill from Lac-Megantic.
A short time earlier, a fire broke out on the train, and firefighters came to extinguish it. They alerted the railroad trackman, Burkhardt said.
That man, whose job it is to attend to the integrity of the rails, went down to have a look and phoned the railroad to report what he saw, Burkhardt said.
“The train was still there,” Burkhardt stated.
One firefighter remained behind. The fire crew had “shut down” the train, the rail chief said.
Burkhardt thinks that was a mistake, because it may have included the engine that controlled the brakes.
But by the time the railway company found out about the shutdown, it was too late, Burkhardt said. The train was gone.
“I’m of the opinion that the train rolled away rather quickly after being shut down,” he said. It must have been right after the trackman left the site. He said he hopes the investigation will shed light on that.
Firefighters not train experts
Burkhardt does not think the firefighters are at fault. They are not experts on trains, he said. He wishes they’d have involved the train’s engineer, who was sleeping at a nearby hotel.
“It’s easy to say what should have happened,” Burkhardt lamented.
Besides, the firefighters’ shutting down of the the engine’s brakes should not have been enough to cut the train loose.
The locomotives and cars also have handbrakes. That should have been enough to hold the train, he said.
“Either a sufficient number were not set on the train,” Burkhardt said, or the standard procedure for the number of brakes to be set was not enough for a train that heavy.
His engineer reported having deployed the hand brakes on a number of tanker cars and on the engines. The brakes on the locomotives eventually held, he said.
They stopped a quarter of a mile away from their original parking spot in Nantes, he said. They did not make it to Lac-Megantic.
He could not explain what happened with the brakes on the 72 oil cars that did.
March of death
What remained of the train picked up speed, because the track between Nantes and Lac-Megantic lies on a 1.2% downward slope, which is relatively steep, a Canadian rail safety official said.
The train rolled into town much faster than a train under an engineer’s control would have.
“Usually they’re traveling between 5 and 10 miles an hour,” said Richard. “On that night, this train was going at least between 30 and 40 miles an hour.”
Rail traffic controllers can spot runaway trains on major rail lines, said rail safety manager Ed Belkaloul. But the line between Nantes and Lac-Megantic is not one of them.
The town’s residents were the first to find out about it.
One who lives near the track said she had never heard a train rumble through town that loudly. It shook her entire house.
Then came the fireball.
CNN’s Paula Newton, Ben Brumfield, Holly Yan, Umaro Djau, Jonathan Mann, Pierre Meilhan and Deanna Hackney contributed to this report.
Joe Sterling | CNN