LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — The head of a railway company whose train crashed into a Quebec town, killing at least 15 people, blamed the accident on an employee who he said had failed to properly set the brakes.
Edward A. Burkhardt, president and chief executive of the railway’s parent company, Rail World, made his comments Wednesday during his first visit to Lac-Megantic, where about 60 people remained missing after Saturday’s fiery crash. He arrived with a police escort and was heckled by angry residents.
He said a train engineer has been suspended without pay.
“I think he did something wrong. . . . 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.”
The railway chief promised an energetic response to the humanitarian crisis.
At a news conference shortly before Burkhardt was due to arrive in Lac-Megantic, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company’s response after the disaster, citing “serious gaps” she said resulted from Rail World “not having been there and not communicating with the public.”
Burkhardt said he had initially stayed in Chicago to deal with the crisis from his office, where he was better able to communicate with insurers and officials in different places.
Marois also announced a $60 million fund to help victims in Lac-Megantic and to rebuild the town.
Quebec police inspector Michel Forget said police were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation but had ruled out terrorism as a cause. He said an array of other possibilities remain under investigation, including criminal negligence. Other officials have raised the possibility that the train was tampered with.
“We’re not at the stage of arrests,” Forget said.
The heart of the town’s central business district — not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks — was being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape Wednesday.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness nearly seven miles before jumping the tracks at 63 mph in Lac-Megantic, in southern Quebec, near the Maine border, investigators said. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.
Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train’s 18-minute journey because they didn’t know it was happening, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board officials said.