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Foul Play, Negligence Not Ruled Out In Quebec Train Disaster

Do not cross: Crime scene tape blocks access to part of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a train derailed and exploded on Saturday.
Stephen Morrison
Do not cross: Crime scene tape blocks access to part of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a train derailed and exploded on Saturday.

Quebec police are looking into whether Saturday's train derailment and the massive explosions that followed in the small town of Lac-Megantic were caused by "foul play or criminal negligence," CBC News reported Wednesday morning.

"We are conducting a criminal investigation. We are not neglecting anything so far," provincial police inspector Michel Forget said, according to the news network. Authorities do not suspect this was an act of terrorism, however.

As Wednesday began, the confirmed number of deaths remained at 15. But as we reported Tuesday evening, that left the number of missing at about 35 people. (Update at 10:55 a.m. ET: Later Wednesday morning, officials said they now believe about 45 people are still unaccounted for.)

Update at 6:25 p.m. ET: Death Toll Rises

Authorities now say that at least 20 people died in the massive explosion. They're among the 50 people still counted as missing because they have yet to be identified, the CBC reports.

Our original post continues:

The CBC says that Canada's Transportation Safety Board is "looking into whether the train's operator — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic — followed proper safety procedures in the hours before the unmanned 72-car train carrying crude oil rolled down a hill and slammed into town. ... It remains unclear whether the train's conductor had set enough hand brakes — which are meant to hold a train in place even if the air brakes fail — before he left the train for a shift change shortly before the fire broke out."

The Canadian Press writes that "police say they're treating the Lac-Mégantic disaster area as a 'crime scene' and say they could lay charges. ... Quebec provincial police Insp. Michel Forget revealed that police are not leaning towards terrorism as a hypothesis, but are more likely exploring the possibility of criminal negligence. ... However, he did not say whether the investigation was for potential crimes committed at the explosion site or farther up the rail line."

Meanwhile, investigators are also looking at what happened earlier when there was a fire on the train as it was parked in the nearby town of Nantes. According to Canadian Press, the railroad company "has suggested the fire crew didn't do enough — and even suggested the decision to shut off the locomotive to put out [the] fire ... might have disabled the brakes. The fire crew, however, says it was simply following procedures set out by the railway itself."

It was following that fire, while the train was unattended during a shift change of its crew, that the tank cars loaded with oil started rolling toward Lac-Mégantic — where they derailed and exploded.

Lac-Mégantic is about 150 miles east of Montreal, near the border with Maine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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