As RCMP shifts focus, Marois calls rail chairman's behaviour 'deplorable'

The Globe and Mail

Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son and two daughters in law, gets a hug from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois during her visit in Lac-Megantic, Que., Thursday, July 11, 2013. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois lashed out on Thursday at the railway boss whose runaway train levelled the centre of a tiny Quebec town, as residents came to grips with the reality that 50 of their neighbours were likely dead.

“The behaviour of the company and its president has been absolutely deplorable,” Marois said of the executive, Ed Burkhardt, and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose driverless train of tanker cars smashed into Lac-Megantic early on Saturday and exploded in a wall of fire.

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The Quebec government is making a $60-million aid package available to the many people and businesses affected by the explosion.

A week after a freight train careened into Lac-Mégantic and exploded, local firefighters and a federal hazardous materials team have been called in to examine nine oil-filled tanker cars that were saved from the wreckage.

RCMP officers say the the nine wagons idled on the tracks outside of the shattered town are a “crime scene,” part of the evidence in an investigation into the disaster. However on Thursday morning, a hazardous materials team from Environment Canada stood beside the wagons in protective gear.

Officials at the scene declined to answer questions.

An alarm was raised the previous evening when inspectors from Transport Canada found something amiss with the wagons and called the local fire department. Volunteer firefighters from the nearby Quebec village of Nantes responded.

Last Friday evening, the same volunteer force responded to a small fire on an unmanned locomotive in the same area. After firefighters extinguished that blaze, the 72-wagons slipped into town and detonated at 1 a.m.

According to officials from the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the engineer of the doomed train, awoken in his hotel room by the sounds of explosions as tons of flaming crude oil flowed into downtown Lac-Mégantic, rushed to stop the last nine wagons before they added to the inferno. After uncoupling them from the burning cars, he towed the nine tankers out of harm's way in a "trackmobile", or mobile railcar mover.

The RCMP cannot confirm what the emergency teams are searching for, however the nine wagons have been grounded and firefighters have searched local ditches for traces of oil.

The nine tanks hold nearly 300,000 gallons of crude oil.

Although the disaster scene is off limits and authorities have made efforts to block views of the worst of the damage, that hasn’t kept away the curious.

At a paved parking lot directly across from the marina and downtown just a few hundred metres away, a steady stream of vehicles with Quebec and Maine licence plates were pulling in Thursday morning for a look and a quick stop.

There wasn’t much to see, as trees, some browned by the fire, blocked the view.

Linda Rousseau, a 53-year-old retiree, had driven by motorcycle that morning from her home in Quebec City, three hours away, on a day trip.

“It’s a little bit of curiosity” that drew her and her husband, said Ms. Rousseau, dressed in jeans and a jean vest. “It’s hard to imagine when you see such a beautiful setting that a catastrophe happened here. We can’t see it, but we can imagine the atrocity. It must have been horrible.”

At the foot of a giant metal cross on a hill overlooking the town, a local man, who only gave his first name, Robert, allowed the Globe and Mail to look through the binoculars and telescope he had brought to get a closer look at the damage. A shiny fuel truck was visible, parked adjacent to the site of the former Musi-Cafe, apparently pumping out liquid from the area. The ruined oil tankers that exploded and burned for more than day last weekend still sat in a giant heap, surrounded by blackened spiny stumps of trees and debris from wrecked buildings.

With files from Reuters

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