LAC-MEGANTIC,QUE.– As the body count – now at five – rises after a devastating train explosion in this town 250 kilometres east of Montreal, officials say it is conceivable that some of the 40 people unaccounted for may have simply vaporized in the blast.
That was the grim admission of Genevieve Gaudrault, a spokesperson for the provincial coroner’s office Sunday afternoon.
“It is not impossible when we look at the intensity of the explosion,” she told reporters.
She added that the five dead bodies that have been recovered from the ravaged downtown area have been transported to Montreal for forensic examination and have not yet been positively identified.
“We can deduce that the bodies that have been found have had severe burns,” she said.
The ravaged site of a train explosion that razed blocks of downtown Lac-Megantic is being treated as the “scene of a crime” as families anxiously await word about the fate of loved ones missing since the crash occurred about 1 a.m. Saturday morning.
Police spokesman Michel Brunet said that while he could confirm the additional deaths, he could not describe where and in what conditions the victims were found. In part, that is because of the criminal probe is moving into overdrive here. He also said that family members of some victims have not yet been notified.
One volunteer at the high school that is serving as the makeshift nerve centre for this unfolding tragedy said the survivors of the explosion are going through different stages of shock.
One young woman who worked at the now-leveled Musi-Café emerged from the school in tears.
With no news of her cousin, Andree-Anne Sevigny, and a work colleague, Jo-Annie Lapointe, was devastated nearly 36 hours after the blast.
“They can’t find them,” she said.
Saturday residents were in disbelief about what had happened and frantic for word of the missing. Sunday those feelings evolved into shock as people begin to comprehend the extent of the devastation and the mounting loss of life.
While reporters and television crews are camped out at the entrance to the school, Linda Gendreau said that inside there is an information vacuum – no televisions, no running updates.
“There is a lot of media but no televisions and maybe it is better that way because people are living through this event and they have to take it one day at a time,” said Gendreau, a Lac-Megantic resident who said her family members and friends are all accounted for, but friends of friends are still missing.
“We can’t absorb it all at once, so it’s maybe a good thing that we start by going through the shock of the situation, and then go through the collective crisis of what it means for the community.”
Police believe that the 73-wagon locomotive, operated by The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, dislodged after its conductor parked it about 12 kms away from the town of 6,000 while awaiting a shift change. The train somehow began moving and travelled under the force if its own weight into downtown Lac-Megantic. Among the reports police are looking into is a reported locomotive fire that was called in to neighbouring Nantes Fire Department at about 11:30 p.m. Friday night.
Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel issued a statement Sunday afternoon about the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic.
“The department is in contact with local officials and The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway,” it read. “The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is conducting a full investigation to determine the cause of the incident. A Minister’s observer has been appointed and will keep me informed of the investigation’s progress. Should any deficiencies be identified, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action.”
“Our government remains dedicated to keeping Canada’s transportation system safe and secure. We have increased the number of inspectors and auditors and we have implemented the new Railway Safety Act which requires rail companies to create and maintain a culture of safety and will penalize rule breakers with tough new penalties.”
Transportation Safety Board of Canada spokesperson Chris Krepski said half a dozen investigators and staff are currently on site, with more due to arrive Sunday.
“They’re in the accident site examining the site,” said Krepski.
Investigators are looking for locomotive event recorder, the equivalent of a plane’s black box, which records information such as speed and whether brakes, throttle, signals or whistles were applied. Investigators would also be examining the locomotive, the tracks and terrain around the area, he said.
Generally, however, the site remains under control of first responders until the emergency is over and their investigations are complete.
One politician, Montreal area Member of the National Assembly Amir Khadir, has been in the town since 9:30 this morning to, he said, “show empathy for those affected.”
And to give voice to the anger that many of the residents are feeling.
“Through the eyewitness testimony we’ve heard, it’s clear that this catastrophe could have been avoided,” said the member of the opposition party Quebec Solidaire
“What kind of a idiotic administrator allows just one person to man a train with that many wagons of crude oil?”
Khadir says the security of all rail lines in the province must be reviewed and that people should at least be given advance warning when a train with that many wagons full of oil comes into their town.
There were some positive developments in the tragedy to be reported just a few hours before Prime Minister Stephen Harper was set to arrive in this town near the U.S. border. Fire chief Denis Lauzon said the three of the five wagons that caught fire have been extinguished, though two more were still ablaze more than 32 hours after the initial explosions.
After using “astronomical quantities” of lake water to contain the spread of the flames, fire crews applied a fire retardant foam through the night.
“The strategy was well chosen,” said Lauzon.
Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche also said that a drinking water ban imposed last night had now been lifted, though residents are being advised to boil their water for 5-minutes before consuming it.