Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Thirteen people were confirmed dead and a total of 50 remained missing in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic on Monday, two days after a runaway train loaded with crude oil derailed and set off an explosion and fireball that destroyed much of the town's center.
Cleanup continues at the scene of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, runaway oil train derailment and explosion on Tuesday. Investigators looking for the cause of the fiery oil train derailment are zeroing in on whether an earlier blaze on the same train may have set off a chain of events that led to the explosions that killed at least 13 people.
Searchers dig through the rubble for victims of the inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday.
The Associated Press reports that inspectors were finally cleared to enter the charred site's epicenter and look for more remains late Monday, to try to determine what allowed the train to roll out of a small rail yard and several miles down an incline into the town early Saturday morning.
Preliminary data from the locomotive's event data recorder showed the train was going an estimated 62 mph when it hit a curve in the tracks and derailed at 1:15 a.m., Donald Ross, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge, told the National Post of Canada.
The train's operator, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, based in Hermon, Maine, has averaged almost two crashes or derailments per year over the past decade with at least $50,000 damage in each, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. No one died in any of the previous accidents.
The federal data, which applies only to activity in the United States, shows the company's accident rate per million train miles last year was 34.7, compared with the national rate of 2.27. The company has said that its rate can be higher because it carries freight fewer miles than other carriers. The 2012 rate reflects two reportable accidents.
"When you look at the total number of cars handled by the MMA, that's pretty small," said Kevin Burkholder, who publishes the online trade periodical Eastern Railroad News. "A defective car brake, you're not going to know it fails until it fails. MMA doesn't own most of the cars they're operating. Oil tank cars are owned by private companies."
On June 12, 2012, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic worker said he had left a rail car with its brakes on but turned to see it rolling down a 1 percent grade in a rail yard in Brownville Junction, Maine. The worker tried again to apply the brake but the car kept rolling, eventually colliding with another car at 5 mph. A defective brake rod was determined to be the cause.
On Feb. 23 of this year, a train bound for Lac-Megantic from Brownville Junction had an emergency in Jackman that led to one of the cars derailing and being dragged 2,000 feet at about 5 mph. The incident caused $23,000 in damage, according to the Federal Railroad Administration's accident report.
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railway, has said the engineer on the train before Saturday's accident left one of the locomotives running to secure the brakes, then left the train unattended for the night – something that's routine.
A fire was reported on the train about an hour before the derailment, and was put out. It's not clear what role that fire may have played in the derailment and explosion, or whether the effort to put out the fire might have affected the brakes.
The company released a statement Sunday saying it appeared the locomotive was shut down after the engineer left for the night, which may have caused the air brakes to be released.
Repeated telephone calls to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic and its parent company, Rail World Inc., were not returned Monday. An employee who answered the telephone said the company planned to issue a news release Monday afternoon, but no release was sent. No statement was posted on the company's website.
The company owns more than 500 miles of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick, according to its website.
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Wreckage is strewn through the downtown core in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday, July 8, 2013, after a train derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil early Saturday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)
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The wreckage of a train is pictured after explosion in Lac Megantic