By BENJAMIN SHINGLER and ROB GILLIES, Associated Press
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) — Investigators searching for the cause of a fiery oil train derailment that wiped out a small town's center and killed at least 13 people zeroed in on an earlier blaze on that same train, and the possibility that the series of actions that followed it might have somehow caused the locomotive's brakes to fail several hours later.
Inspectors, meanwhile, searched for remains in the derailment's devastated epicenter after finally being cleared to enter the area late Monday — almost three days after the disaster. Nearly 40 people were still missing, not counting the 13 unidentified victims, suggesting the death toll was likely to rise sharply.
The rail tankers that blew up had a history of puncturing during accidents, but investigators acknowledged that it was too soon to tell whether that had been a factor in the explosions.
All but one of the train's 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five of the train's tankers exploded after coming loose early Saturday, speeding downhill nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) and derailing into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border.
Maude Verrault, a waitress at downtown's Musi-Cafe, was outside smoking when she spotted the blazing train barreling toward her.
"I've never seen a train moving so fast in my life, and I saw flames ... Then someone screamed 'the train is going to derail!' and that's when I ran," Verrault said. She said she felt the heat scorch her back as she ran from the explosion, but was too terrified to look back.
The rail tankers involved in the derailment are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board investigator told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Monday.
TSB investigator Donald Ross said Canada's TSB has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on these tankers, though he said it was too soon to know whether a different or modified tanker would have avoided last weekend's tragedy.
The DOT-111 is a staple of the American freight rail fleet. But its flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Among other things, its steel shell is too thin to resist puncturing in accidents, which almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.
"It's too early to tell. There's a lot of factors involved," Ross said. "There's a lot of energy here. The train came down on a fairly significant grade for 6.8 miles before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did." He said the train was moving at 63 mph (101 kph) when it derailed.
Officials were also looking at a locomotive blaze on the same train in a nearby town a few hours before the derailment. Ross also said the locomotive's black box has been recovered, and investigators were examining whether the air brakes or the hand break malfunctioned.
"The extent to which (the fire) played into the sequences of events is a focal point of our investigation," Ross said.
The Saturday blasts destroyed about 30 buildings, including a public library and Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was filled with revelers, and forced about a third of the town's 6,000 residents from their homes. Much of the area where the bar once stood was burned to the ground. Burned-out car frames dotted the landscape.
The derailment raised questions about the safety of Canada's growing practice of transporting oil by train, and was sure to bolster arguments that a proposed oil pipeline running from Canada across the U.S. — one that Canadian officials badly want — would be safer.
Raymond Lafontaine, whose son and two daughters-in-law were among the missing, said he was angry with what appeared to be a lack of safety regulations.
"We always wait until there's a big accident to change things," he said. "Well, today we've had a big accident, it's one of the biggest ever in Canada."
The area remained part of a criminal probe and investigators were exploring all options, including the possibility that someone intentionally tampered with the train, said Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard.
Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the train was inspected the day before the accident in Montreal and no deficiencies were found. Lebel defended his government against criticism it had cut back on rail safety measures. He said the rails remain a safe way to transport goods the vast majority of the time.