By Joe Sterling, CNN
The head of the railway whose runaway train devastated a small Quebec town cast doubt on his engineer’s story Wednesday as he arrived to face insults from survivors and harsh questions from reporters.
Edward Burkhardt said the engineer has been suspended without pay and faces a criminal investigation by Canadian authorities.
He said the engineer reported to railroad managers that he set 11 hand brakes on the train cars before they broke away from their engines, but “I think it’s questionable whether he did.”
“Our general feeling is now that is not true,” said Burkhardt,chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. The engineer had worked for the MM&A for “many years” and “had a completely clear safety record up until Saturday,” Burkhardt said.
Most of the 73-car train derailed in the center of Lac-Megantic early Saturday, and tank cars full of oil exploded and burned. Quebec provincial authorities have found 20 bodies, and 30 more are missing “and most probably dead,” Quebec Provincial Police Capt. Michel Forget said Wednesday.
Authorities have said those still missing may have been vaporized by the resulting inferno. The number of those unaccounted for dropped from the 45 reported earlier Wednesday, and Forget said the numbers could fluctuate as the investigation continues.
The railway cars strewn throughout the center of the town 6,000 have barely stopped smoldering, and the area around them remained cordoned off Wednesday afternoon.
Hundreds of evacuees, mostly older residents, were still taking shelter in a local school, said Myrian Marotte, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Red Cross.
In the beginning, there were 2,000 people who were forced to flee their homes, Marotte said
“Everyone here knows someone who was evacuated,” she said. Nevertheless, she added, “You see a lot of solidarity and resilience.”
A fair bit of anger was also on display as Burkhardt arrived Wednesday afternoon. Two middle-aged men shouted at him as he spoke with reporters, calling him an obscene name and challenging him to walk into the heart of the disaster.
One of the men, Pierre L’Heureux, told CNN he knew at least half the people who were dead or missing.
“They should put that guy in prison,” L’Heureux said. “He’s a murderer … he should be in prison.”
Burkhardt also was likely to face a chilly reception from Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche.
Burkhardt said he was trying to arrange meetings with the mayor, who would not tell reporters Wednesday whether she would meet with him.
Burkhardt said he felt “personally, absolutely rotten” about the crash and said his railroad would “stand up to our responsibility.” As chairman, “I guess it’s my role to collect all this criticism,” he said.
“We think we have plenty of responsibility,” he said. But whether the company bears “total responsibility” for the crash is “yet to be determined,” he added.
The cars broke free from an MM&A train as it was parked in the nearby town of Nantes early Saturday, plunging down a seven-mile incline into Lac-Megantic.
Firefighters in Nantes had been called to put out a fire on the train before the cars broke away, and Burkhardt said those firefighters may have shut down systems on the train’s five locomotives that contributed to the disaster.
“We felt this probably had an important part to play in this tragedy,” he said.
The fire department in Nantes has rejected the notion.
The engineer had parked the train and set hand brakes on all five engines and then checked into a hotel for the night. Firefighters reported the blaze to a track maintenance man, who alerted the company to the incident, Burkhardt said.
The engines and nine other cars remained behind when the rest of the train broke away sometime later. They stopped a quarter of a mile away from their original parking spot in Nantes.
Investigators have asked fire crews to stop spraying down the wreckage to preserve as much of the remaining evidence as possible. Quebec police spokesman Benoit Richard said Wednesday, “We are no longer treating this as just an accident.”
Some of the evidence led investigators to believe a “criminal act” may have contributed to the train crash, Forget said Tuesday.
But Forget said authorities would lay no blame until the investigation shows exactly what happened.
All businesses and factories in the affected region that are able were reopening Wednesday morning, Roy-Laroche said. She said the Red Cross would begin distributing vouchers to those returning home for food and other essential items, with the funds for the vouchers donated by people in the community and businesses in the region.
The mayor urged tourists not to cancel their reservations in the area, noting that some 300,000 people visit the region between May and October every year. And she thanked people from around the world who sent messages in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“All these messages give us the strength to face this catastrophe,” she said.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said the provincial government would provide $25 million in emergency assistance immediately, with another $25 million to help with reconstruction efforts.
“It’s small comfort, we know,” Marois said. But she said the government hopes rebuilding will become “a mobilizing force” for the town.
Tuesday, some 1,200 residents were allowed to return to their homes in the area. Among them was Michel Gagnon, who was eating lunch Wednesday on his patio, a few blocks from the edge of the cordon.
Gagnon said Lac-Megantic’s downtown had lost everything, but within a few years, “everything will be back up.”
CNN’s Paula Newton, Ben Brumfield, Holly Yan, Umaro Djau, Jonathan Mann, Pierre Meilhan and Deanna Hackney contributed to this report.
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