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CANADIAN authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the fiery wreck of a runaway oil train as the death toll climbed to 15, with dozens more bodies feared buried.
Quebec police inspector Michel Forget says investigators have "discovered elements'' that have led to a criminal probe. He gave no details but ruled out terrorism.
Tangled debris and gas leaks hampered rescue workers' search for bodies three days after the crash on Saturday that incinerated much of Lac-Megantic's downtown and raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline.
Investigators zeroed in on whether a blaze on the train a few hours before the disaster set off the deadly chain of events.
The death toll rose with the discovery of two more bodies on Tuesday. About three dozen people are missing.
"This is a very risky environment. We have to secure the safety of those working there. We have some hotspots on the scene. There is some gas,'' Quebec Provincial Police Sgt Benoit Richard said.
The bodies that have been recovered were burned so badly they have yet to be identified.
Searchers dig through the rubble for victims of the inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early on Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness nearly 11km before jumping the tracks at 101kph in Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, investigators said.
All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.
The blasts destroyed about 30 buildings, including the Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was filled at the time, and forced about a third of the town's 6000 residents from their homes.
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," Ms Verrault said.
She said she felt the heat scorch her back as she ran from the explosion, but was too terrified to look back.
Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province.
Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train's 18-minute journey because they didn't know it was happening themselves, Transportation Safety Board officials say.
Such warning systems are in place on busier lines but not on secondary lines, said TSB manager Ed Belkaloul.
Lac-Megantic's mayor says about 1200 residents are being allowed to return to their homes.
Earlier, the chairman of the train company says he is certain it was tampered with.
"We have evidence of this," said Ed Burkhardt, of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
"But this is an item that needs further investigation. We need to talk to some people we believe to have knowledge of this."
On Sunday, however, the company isssued a statement saying their officials had been so far unable to conduct their own investigation.
Officials were looking at a locomotive blaze on the same train in a nearby town a few hours before the derailment.
Transportation Safety Board investigator Donald Ross said the locomotive's black box has been recovered, and investigators were examining whether the air brakes or the hand brake malfunctioned.
"The extent to which (the fire) played into the sequences of events is a focal point of our investigation," Mr Ross said.
Officials said on Tuesday that the fire is finally under control and that 1200 out of about 2000 evacuees will be able to go back to their homes.
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 said in a telephone interview late on Monday.
Mr 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," Mr Ross said.
"There's a lot of energy here. The train came down on a fairly significant grade for 11 kilometres before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did." He said the train was moving at 101 km/h when it derailed.
The train's owners, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said they believed brake failure was to blame.
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said that when the same train caught fire hours prior to the accident, the engine was shut off per the standard operating procedure dictated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
The blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes. And that's where the fire department's involvement ended, Mr Lambert said.
"The people from MMA told us, 'That's great - the train is secure, there's no more fire, there's nothing anymore, there's no more danger,'" Mr Lambert told reporters. "We were given our leave, and we left."
Edward Burkhardt, the president and CEO of the railway's parent company Rail World, suggested that the decision to shut off the locomotive to put out the fire might have disabled the brakes.
"An hour or so after the locomotive was shut down, the train rolled away," Mr Burkhardt told the Canadian Broadcast Corp.
Meanwhile, crews were working to contain 100,000 litres of light crude that spilled from the tankers and made its way into nearby waterways.
There were fears it could flow into the St. Lawrence River all the way to Quebec City.
Quebec's Environment Ministry Spokesman Eric Cardinal said officials remained hopeful they could contain more than 85 per cent of the spill.
This article first appeared on www.news.com.au
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