Officials said Monday the death toll from the weekend disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., is now 13, as over 100 police officers continue to investigate how a driverless 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.
Provincial police spokesman Sergeant Benoît Richard said eight more bodies were recovered as officials were able to enter new areas of the devastated town where the flames are under control.
Officials said the bodies were so badly burned that it was impossible to tell if they were male or female.
Sgt. Richard also said there are “more or less” 50 people missing, a figure that includes the 13 bodies recovered.
He said there are 12 crime-scene technicians working in Lac-Mégantic, along with three forensic dental experts and they are to be joined Tuesday by a forensic anthropologist, who can examine bones.
Geneviève Guilbault, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s coroner’s office, urged relatives of missing people to help DNA expertise by providing toothbrushes, razors, hairbrushes, combs or hats. "Anything that could have held hair."
Relatives of the missing held out little hope of finding them alive.
Henri-Paul Audette went to a high school that is serving as a temporary shelter for evacuees in hopes of finding his missing brother, Fernand, after an acquaintance said he had registered there. But, when he arrived on Sunday, his 58-year-old sibling’s name wasn’t on the list. Fernand’s apartment is next to the railroad tracks.
“I haven’t heard from him since the accident,” he said.
Transportation investigators are still trying to determine what caused the accident. Transportation Safety Board officials have retrieved the locomotive’s black box, which could hold invaluable data.
The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the train’s owners, singled out the air brakes of the train, saying the locomotive was “shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer,” depriving the air brakes of the power needed to keep the load from careening downhill.
The day before the accident, the train’s locomotive had been checked by a Transport Canada inspector who found nothing faulty, federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel told reporters.
Colette Roy-Laroche, the town’s mayor, pleaded Monday for patience from more than 1,500 evacuated residents as an Environment Quebec official said a “phased re-entry” is being planned. More than 160 people slept at the high school and some 550 have registered with the Red Cross for assistance and meals. Many homes will require cleaning before residents can return, given toxic soot and dripping yellow oil.
“We hope you will be able to return to your homes as quickly as possible, and you will do so safely,” Ms. Roy-Larouche said.
In the quiet community, where well-tended gardens front modest two-storey single homes, police officers continued to monitor a red-tape perimeter around the downtown, where dozens of businesses and numerous homes were destroyed. Officers allowed evacuated residents to return to their homes for quick visits to gather personal effects.
Vincent Roy, a sawmill owner who lives just 300 metres from the derailment site, and his wife spent “maybe seven minutes in total” in their house Monday morning gathering glasses, clothes and medication. The visit was their first time back in their house, which smells of smoke, since they escaped with their three children and Mr. Roy’s father wearing little more than their underwear as a mushroom cloud of smoke towered over their heads and fiery debris plummeted to the ground around them.
“It’s nothing one could imagine,” said Mr. Roy, who wore shorts and a golf shirt borrowed from his father-in-law, whose house in nearby Lac Drolet has been the family’s temporary refuge.
There was a rare spot of good news on Monday as environment officials said air pollution was at acceptable levels in a large area outside the downtown. And the air in the downtown core is expected to be acceptable by “the end of the day,” said Mélissa Généreux of the regional health department.
The town’s water system is improving, with the reservoir refilling, though it remains under a boil water advisory. Water was intermittent over the weekend, under strain from firefighting and a broken main downtown.
Father Steve Lemay, a local priest, said the disaster has hit young people particularly hard, but lauded the community’s perseverance, saying it “reassures us of human nature.” He also noted that residents are asking questions about the train’s safety.
“We have to understand that the authorities are doing what they can to try to explain this situation. We can’t demand a fast response,” he said.
The Queen expressed “profound sadness” Monday at learning of the disaster.
“The loss of life and livelihoods has shocked us all. Prince Philip joins me in hoping that in time it will be possible to rebuild both the property and the lives of those who have been affected. My thoughts and prayers are with you all,” she said.
With reports from Sophie Cousineau, Kim Mackrael, Les Perreaux, Sean Silcoff and The Canadian Press