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Firefighters work to put out the flames from a train derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

As first responders comb the charred ruins of Lac-Mégantic for signs of life after a devastating rail disaster, the town's shock and grief is crystallizing into rage as residents ask how such combustible cargo could move through the heart of their lakeside community.

Transport investigators and railway officials are trying to figure out what sent the unmanned train barrelling into town early Saturday in an accident that culminated in a series of explosions that killed at least five people and left another 40 missing.

The anguish and anger were palpable Sunday across this tiny town in the centre of Quebec's cottage country, as residents struggled to come to terms with the tragedy and recounted long-standing fears that it was only a matter of time before the practice of carting flammable fuel through their downtown would turn to disaster.

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"Nobody wanted [the oil], but they insisted on sending it our way," said a sobbing Claudette Rodrigue, who lives near the tracks. "We were afraid of it, so afraid."

Transporting oil by rail is not new in Canada, but it has surged in recent years as the boom in North American oil production has outpaced existing pipeline capacity.

Mr. Harper, a proponent of pipeline expansion, declined to discuss the topic on Sunday after a tour of the scene that he likened to "a war zone."

He offered condolences to the families of the dead and missing, and said the investigation would bring answers to many difficult questions, including determining responsibility for the incident.

The Prime Minister did not detail what kind of assistance Ottawa would provide to the community, but acknowledged there was "a need for substantial financial reconstruction."

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which operates the railroad, said in a prepared statement that air brakes holding the train in place at a routine stop about 12 kilometres uphill in Nantes, Que., may have been accidentally released.

The company said the government's investigation of the incident has prevented the company from completing its own probe, but added that the engineer had shut down the train before departing at Nantes, around 11:25 p.m. Friday.

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Throughout the day on Sunday, people streamed in and out of the town's evacuee shelter, a few kilometres from the derailment site.

Health workers offered psychological counselling, while volunteers handed out snacks and bottled water, and locals shared their heartbreak and outrage amid tears and hugs.

Standing outside the shelter, Raymond Lafontaine, feared his son, Gaëtan, and his daughter-in-law, Karine, died in the explosion. He went so far as to call the carting of combustible cargo "criminal."

Henri-Paul Audette visited the shelter hoping to find his missing brother, Fernand, 58, who lived in an apartment close to the derailment site.

"I haven't heard from him since the accident," he said.

Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said her town is one of many with concerns about cargo-train shipments, and that she recently asked the company to look after the tracks carefully.

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"Could they have done any better? I cannot tell you at this point in time."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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