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Safety board warns against blaming one person for Lac-Mégantic disaster

Crews continue to their work in Lac-Mégantic, Que. on July 12, 2013. Yesterday authorities here opened up some new areas of town to residents, but the damaged areas of downtown remain behind a steel screened fence that will likely remain for some time following the devastating derailment here early Saturday morning. The church near the epicentre of the disaster, St. Agnes, is now accessible to the town's people, but media have been asked to keep their distance.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The catastrophic train derailment that killed dozens of people in Lac-Mégantic last Saturday was probably caused by a "series of things" and not the fault of a single individual, the Transportation Safety Board says.

TSB chair Wendy Tadros cautioned against casting blame on one person alone two days after the chairman of the company that owns the train said he believes an employee failed to properly apply enough handbrakes when he left it parked at the top of a hill on July 5.

The parked train, which was carrying crude oil, rolled down the tracks about an hour after an engine fire in one of its locomotives was extinguished by local firefighters. It picked up speed on the downhill slope and careened into the town of 6,000 people, causing multiple explosions that laid waste to Lac-Mégantic's downtown core.

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Police have removed the bodies of 28 people from the wreckage so far, but only eight have been identified to their families. More than 20 others are missing and presumed dead. As residents were allowed to return to large parts of downtown Lac-Mégantic on Friday, many gathered at the Ste.-Agnès church to write messages on small construction-paper hearts and deliver food to friends and neighbours.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic chairman Edward Burkhardt told reporters this week that the train's engineer has been suspended and is unlikely to return to his job. He said the fact that the train ran away "would indicate that the handbrakes on the balance of the train were not properly applied." He said the employee has been suspended from the company, noting, "It was our employee that was responsible for setting an adequate number of handbrakes on this train."

The TSB has said that it is looking at all of the brakes that could have been applied on the train as part of its investigation. But Ms. Tadros made it clear on Friday that other factors may be to blame in the devastating crash.

"We hold by the theory that no accident is ever caused by one thing, it's always a series of things and it always involves an organization and how they operate, we need to look deeply into that. It never comes down to one individual," she said.

Among other issues, investigators are looking at the way MM&A operates, its adherence to safety standards and other issues that might have contributed to the crash. The TSB does not assign blame, but can propose new rules and regulations based on its findings.

Ms. Tadros said it would take months or longer to complete the investigation, adding that work has been slowed, in part, because the high concentrations of benzene in the wreckage can be dangerous to investigators' health.

"We have to make sure that we get in and document that evidence, but we also have to make sure that our people are safe," Ms. Tadros said.

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Mr. Burkhardt, MM&A's Illinois-based chairman, told a reporter on Friday that he was on his way to an airport after a brief visit to Lac-Mégantic this week. Residents have criticized the company representatives for having little visible presence in the community in the days after the crash and appearing to cast blame on others.

Shortly after his arrival in town on Wednesday afternoon, the chairman held an impromptu news conference on a residential street for more than 30 minutes before police interrupted and took him to a nearby station for questioning. He later drove to Sherbrooke and then to Montreal for a series of unspecified meetings.

The chairman is a controversial figure in the small town, after initially suggesting the train had been tampered with, and then casting blame on local firefighters for turning off the engine as they battled the blaze. And on Wednesday, the outspoken chairman told reporters he believes that employee Tom Harding – the engineer responsible for the train that night – did not turn enough of the handbrakes that might have prevented the tragedy.

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