July 8, 2013 10:09 am
Updated: July 8, 2013 10:59 am

Lac-Megantic struggles to find hope for 40 people still missing


Watch: Global National reporter Mike Armstrong reports from Megantic on Sunday.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – About 40 people are still missing and the official death toll remains unchanged at five after the weekend rail disaster that devastated much of Lac-Megantic, authorities said Monday.

Safety concerns prevented any overnight search operations, Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard told a news conference.

Watch: Authorities provide an update on Monday morning in Megantic.

“We are are still talking about around more or less 40 people who are reported missing and we don’t know their whereabouts,” Richard said.

“As for the hot spots, that’s under the firefighters’ supervision. Of course, there’s been a lot of work done on the scene during the night and, hopefully, we can get some more areas we can search during the day.”

Watch: Police release more details on the train derailment that caused an explosion in Lac-Megantic. 

A spokeswoman for Quebec’s coroner’s office also said two of the five bodies were sent to Montreal for detailed analysis and that the three others would soon follow.

Health and civil security officials held a separate news conference and said some residents might be allowed back home later Monday.

They also said the situation was improving in certain areas in terms of air quality and drinking water.

The news conferences were held as the devastated town began the work week in anything but working order.

It’s unclear how the town’s survivors might rediscover their normal routine or how long it might take.

Dozens of businesses and numerous homes are destroyed.

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A grocery store, a dollar store, and a popular downtown bar are gone. So is the municipal library. There’s a no-go zone around city hall and a main pharmacy.

The town’s prized veterans’ park, along the water, has been scorched.

After viewing the devastation Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened the downtown of Lac-Megantic to a “war zone.”

Two pathologists have arrived in the town and more have been called in to take on the grim task of identifying human remains.

About 30 buildings were destroyed, including Le Musi-Cafe bar where partygoers were enjoying themselves in the wee hours of a glorious summer night.

The multiple blasts after Saturday’s derailment of a train carrying crude oil sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

“It’s a beautiful downtown here that’s been destroyed… There’s really going to be a need for substantial reconstruction,” Harper said after seeing some of the damage.

“I saw this on the international news… Everywhere people are talking about this.”

Watch: Prime Minister Stephen Harper says that he hopes on-going investigations into the train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec will find the cause of the explosion.

When asked about railway safety concerns, Harper said it was too early to discuss causes. His office issued a statement later in the day through social media, scolding Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair for suggesting lax federal regulations might be to blame.

“We don’t have a lot of the facts, and it would really not be responsible to comment without all the facts,” Harper said.

The prime minister said the federal Transportation Safety Board, and also the police, would be investigating. Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.

Harper promised to draw lessons from the TSB conclusions to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.

“We will conduct a very complete investigation,” Harper said, “and we will act on the recommendations.”

Harper greeted and shook hands with people at a shelter for evacuees, which was set up at a high school after nearly a third of the town’s residents were forced from their homes Saturday.

Throughout the day Sunday, people streamed in and out of the shelter.

Watch: Eight remaining rail cars carrying crude oil in Lac-Megactic were parked on tracks with the cabin left unlocked.

Health-care workers offered services such as psychological counselling, while volunteers handed out snacks and bottled water.

Locals shared their experiences from the night of the blasts.

A few people recalled how they darted into the streets after the explosion and ran alongside neighbours, some wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

Others who gathered outside the shelter Sunday hugged and wiped tears as they braced for bad news about unaccounted-for loved ones.

Henri-Paul Audette headed there with hope of finding his missing brother.

He said he had been told by an acquaintance that his brother, Fernand, had registered at the shelter. But, when he got there, he saw that his 58-year-old sibling’s name wasn’t on the list.

Audette, 69, said his brother’s apartment was next to the railroad tracks, very close to the spot where the train derailed.

“I haven’t heard from him since the accident,” he said.

“I had thought … that I would see him.”

Another man who came to the shelter said it’s difficult to explain the impact this incident has had on life in Lac-Megantic.

About a third of the community was forced out of their homes.

On Sunday the railway, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said the locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train.

It said he had locked the brakes before leaving the train.

That shutdown “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,” the company said in a statement.

“As mentioned above, we don’t have complete information concerning this incident, but will co-operate with government authorities as they continue their investigation.”

The president of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., had said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening into town.

There might have been warning signs hours before the disaster.

Witnesses in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before it started moving, said Sunday they had seen sparks and a cloud of diesel smoke as it came to a stop a few hours before the derailment.

Lac-Megantic’s fire chief said Nantes firefighters had answered a call about a fire aboard the locomotive less than three hours before the train rumbled into Lac-Megantic.

Federal TSB officials said they planned to interview all possible participants as part of what they called a “360-degree,” top-to-bottom, investigation.

They said they had retrieved a so-called “black box” from the train Sunday.

With files by Andy Blatchford and Peter Rakobowchuk

© 2013 The Canadian Press

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