Police: Quebec train crash death toll rises to 20

Head of railway company blames engineer for failure

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Canadian officials told distraught families Wednesday that 30 people still missing after the fiery crash of a runaway oil train are all presumed dead.

Along with 20 bodies found, that would put the death toll from Saturday's derailment and explosions in this lakeside town at 50.

Hours before that somber meeting, the head of the U.S. railway company whose train crashed made his first visit to Lac-Megantic since the disaster, amid jeers from residents and criticism from politicians, including the Quebec premier.

The rail chief blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down a seven-mile incline, derailed and ignited. All but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of parent company Rail World Inc., said the engineer had been suspended without pay and was under "police control."

Parts of the devastated town had remained too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies days after the disaster. Some 60 people had been listed as missing earlier.

"Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons that we are considering most probably dead in this tragedy," said Quebec police inspector Michel Forget, who came to an afternoon news briefing from a meeting with families of the dead and missing.

"We informed them of the potential loss of their loved ones," Forget said. "You have to understand that it's a very emotional moment, and our thoughts are with these families."

Only one of the bodies found so far has been formally identified, said Genevieve Guilbault of the coroner's office. She did not release the name but said next of kin had been notified.

She described efforts to identify the other remains as "very long and arduous work" -- a consequence of the fire's intensity.

Another police official, Sgt. Benoit Richard, said investigators had spoken with Burkhardt during his visit. He did not elaborate.

Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees' actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer as culpable.

"We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?" Burkhardt said. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that's not true. Initially, we believed him, but now we don't."

Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec. Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.

"He's not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him," Burkhardt said. "I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges … If that's the case, let the chips fall where they may."

Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash. The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape Wednesday.

"I understand the extreme anger," Burkhardt said. "We owe an abject apology to the people in this town."