Five people have been confirmed dead after an explosive train derailment touched off massive fires in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., on Saturday. Police say that number will grow and confirm they have more than 40 others on the official missing list.
"We know there will be more deaths," provincial police Lieutenant Michel Brunet told a news conference early Sunday.
"I can tell you that we have met a lot of people ... and what I can tell you is that about 40 people are considered missing," he added.
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche reacted sternly to the latest death toll. "It is unthinkable that so many people could be gone. It is distressing. This is a huge loss for our community," she said.
The entire downtown core has been razed by the explosion and fires.
Two train cars are still burning and considered dangerous. Firefighters are staying 500 feet away from the burning train cars but are pouring a constant stream of lake water to fight the fires and to prevent further explosions.
In an interview Sunday evening outside the Polyvalente, Quebec's chief coroner, Louise Nolet, said her office has been slow to confirm the number of dead because it has not been authorized by police and fire officials to get close to what is expected to be the worst of the human carnage, at the bar Musi-Café.
"We've found only five bodies up to now," she said, adding she herself had not yet visited the scene since arriving earlier in the day. "It's too dangerous and we cannot go there before everything is under control. This is the beginning of a long, delicate process that requires expertise."
Her office's top priority, she added, was "to recuperate all the human debris," which is being shipped in refrigerated trucks to labs in Montreal.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway singled out the air brakes of the runaway train, in a statement on Sunday afternoon.
According to the company, the train's locomotive was "shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer," depriving the train's air brakes of the power needed to keep the load from careening downhill.
Transportation Safety Bureau officials held a news conference on Sunday evening to say they will look at that scenario.
"Where the train was left in Nantes, from that location down to Lac-Megantic is down a grade, and certainly the manner in which the train was secured, both air brakes and hand brakes, we'll be looking very strongly at that," said Donald Ross.
He said officials have retrieved the black box of the locomotive which could hold invaluable data.
"It has data that captures things like throttle position, speed, time, distance, brake pressure," said Ross.
More than 2,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, more than 550 people have registered with the Red Cross for assistance and meals and 163 people slept at the evacuation centre in a local high school, said Red Cross spokesperson Carl Boisvert.
On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured Lac-Mégantic's downtown. "It looks like a war zone here," he noted in a press conference held in front of the high school that doubles as an emergency shelter for the evacuated residents. There, he met with the displaced residents and tried to comfort the families of the Lac-Mégantic residents who have gone missing.
Mr. Harper said investigations will continue "to make sure something like this never happens again." The Prime Minister left the Montignac high school under the applause of many evacuated residents.
"There are difficult times to come. Now, the mood is quite good, the solidarity is there, but I know there will be waves of emotions as the extent of this – and this is a very big disaster in human terms – becomes increasingly obvious," he cautioned.
Mr. Harper is well aware that as the waiting is turning into grief, anger is mounting in Lac-Mégantic against the derailment of the train operated by the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway. "In all fairness, I understand emotions on this subject are very high," he said.
"It is hard to imagine that we could have such an accident. We have regulations to prevent these kinds of things. But there will be investigations that will determine who is guilty, who is responsible," he later added in French.
Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Sunday the owners of the runaway train should have given "a more active response" when the tragedy occurred.
"Your first obligation should be to help out," Mr. Mulcair said of the company. "A more active response would have been expected."
The mayor of Lac-Mégantic criticized the company on Saturday for not speaking to her about the tragedy. Other officials have noted the slow response from the firm, which has focused on defending itself and not offering help.
With reports from Kim Mackrael, Les Perreaux, Sean Silcoff and The Canadian Press
More on the crisis in Lac-Mégantic:
- The Red Cross has information on how to donate to relief efforts in Quebec.