Provincial police have been in talks with the Quebec Bureau of Public Prosecution, a lead official said Wednesday morning, in the clearest signal yet that the Sûreté du Québec believes there is enough ground for criminal charges in connection with the Lac-Mégantic train disaster.
SQ Inspector Michel Forget made the comments while confirming that the tally of people who are dead or missing stands at 60.
The decision to press charges has to be made by a Crown attorney, based on evidence collected by police.
No prosecutor has been assigned to the file but Insp. Forget said the SQ has been discussing the matter with the office of Claude Lachapelle, Quebec''s deputy attorney-general and head of the bureau of public and criminal prosecution.
"That's their decision and we spoke yesterday about different areas where they could lay charges," he said.
Insp. Forget previously said any charges would be related to criminal-negligence offences.
He would not confirm whether investigators will be meeting with the head of the railway company, Ed Burkhardt, who is expected to visit Lac-Mégantic Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in Quebec City, the provincial cabinet is meeting and is expected to announce whether financial aid will be granted to the beleaguered town.
Quebec police said Tuesday that 15 bodies have so far been recovered from Lac Mégantic’s ruined downtown core and another 35 people remain unaccounted for. Police allowed 1,200 residents who were previously evacuated from the blast area to return home, while another 800 must stay away.
As family and friends of the missing wait for news from police, a sense of anger is emerging for some residents over the way the company that owns the train has handled the accident and past complaints about its tracks.
Amid conflicting accounts over what may have caused the incident, the chairman of the company that owns the train had yet to make a public appearance in Lac-Mégantic by Tuesday evening. Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, is expected to arrive in the small town on Wednesday morning, his Chicago-based assistant said.
When he arrives, Mr. Burkhardt is expected to face terse questions about his handling of the disaster and why his story has often seemed at odds with accounts from local officials, police and even another spokesman from his own company. In the days since the crash, MM&A’s chairman suggested the crash was caused by vandals and later cast blame on the local fire department, which responded to a blaze on the train’s lead locomotive hours before the crash.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail this week, Mr. Burkhardt said he believes the train’s air brakes were released because firefighters turned the locomotive’s engine off when they extinguished the fire.
He did not mention the train’s manual brakes, which are supposed to be on when a train is left unattended on the tracks and do not rely on the locomotive’s engine to work. The Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that its investigators are looking at whether the train’s hand brakes were engaged as part of its investigation.
TSB spokesman Donald Ross also confirmed Tuesday that a company representative met with firefighters late Friday night while they were battling a fire on the train. The employee and the firefighters left the scene at the same time, at some point before 12:55 a.m., he said. The train, carrying oil, flew off its tracks and into the city’s centre early Saturday morning.
The company’s representatives, including a board member it has designated as a local spokesman, have been operating out of the basement of the Lac-Mégantic municipal building since the weekend. The building is located in a part of town designated as a yellow zone, which means it cannot be entered without prior authorization. The worst of the destruction is contained in the red zone.
Cathy Aldana, Mr. Burkhardt’s assistant, said she expects him to be “very visible,” when he arrives.
Transportation Safety Board officials say they are still trying to determine what caused the crash, even as police have made it clear that they are treating the incident as a criminal investigation.
The runaway train that slammed into Lac-Mégantic glided downhill along the tracks, gaining speed as it went unnoticed by the dispatcher for almost 20 minutes before it flew off the rails, according to the TSB.
According to MM&A, the locomotives on the train broke free before the derailment, rolling up hill beyond the town. On Tuesday, RCMP officers guarded five locomotives that were idled on the tracks past the crash site and pointed away from town.
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha, Sean Silcoff, Justin Giovannetti and Daniel Bitonti