Angry residents met railway president Edward Burkhardt on Wednesday as he toured for the first time a Quebec town devastated by an explosion on the weekend.
The chairman of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway then placed blame at the feet of an employee who, Burkhardt said, didn’t set brakes properly on a train that exploded and killed at least 20 people in Lac-Megantic.
“It was our employee that was responsible for setting the brakes on the train,” Burkhardt told journalists, according to CBC. “That employee is under investigation and is not working.”
As many as 50 people are presumed dead after the incident late Friday night.
After an engineer parked a train late Friday, a fire broke out in one of the cars. Fire fighters extinguished the blaze and left the scene.
The train cars carrying oil came loose a short time later, rolled downhill into the center of Lac-Megantic and exploded. The entire downtown is destroyed, with at least 30 buildings affected.
Of the train's 73 cars, only one wasn't carrying oil and at least five of them exploded.
The National Transportation Safety Board is now trying to determine if the train’s brakes were working, or if they were disabled.
Police consider the scene, in the center of the town of 6,000 people, a criminal investigation.
Burkhardt told an impromptu press conference that the employee didn’t intentionally release the brakes.
The engineer told company officials and police he set 11 hand brakes, but Burkhardt said that’s in doubt.
“It was questionable whether hand brakes were put in place at this time,” Burkhardt said, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t think any employees removed brakes; they failed to set the brakes.”
The Globe and Mail said that while the engineer in charge of the train hasn’t been arrested, he’s “under police control.”
Sun News identified the engineer in question as Tom Harding, who was placed under investigation last year for being involved in a minor derailment.
Residents told the Globe they’re angry it took Burkhardt four days to tour the devastation.
“I don’t believe him,” Claude Charron, 66, told the newspaper. “He’s saying the company is caring and everything, but they dumped 13,000 liters (3,400 gallons) a month ago and now this is happening.”
Police initially increased the missing to 60 from 50, The Toronto Star reported, but that total was later revised again.
A provincial police representative said the number continues to fluctuate with some residents returning from vacations and others coming forward to report more missing.
As for criminal charges, Insp. Michel Forget called the incident a “criminal act.” The Star reported that any charges laid would likely be negligence rather than willful tampering.
Later on Wednesday, police said they had recovered five more bodies, bringing the official death toll to 20, the Associated Press reported.
Forget told one family the identity of a victim, but haven't released any names. They had disturbing news for the others, saying the 30 remaining missing persons are presumed dead.
"Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons that we are considering most probably dead in this tragedy," Forget said, the AP reported.
"We informed them (families) of the potential loss of their loved ones. ... You have to understand that it's a very emotional moment, and our thoughts are with these families."
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