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Police: Quebec train crash deaths now at 20, likely to rise

Caption
(AP photo)
A police officer approaches an angry resident yelling at Ed Burkhardt, president of Rail World Inc., who was speaking in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, on Wednesday. A Rail World oil train derailed Saturday in the town and killed at least 20 people. More bodies are expected to be found in the wreckage.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Canadian officials are now telling the families of the 30 people missing in a runaway oil train crash over the weekend that all are presumed dead.

With 20 bodies found, that would put the death toll from Saturday's derailment and explosions at 50.

The head of the U.S. railway company whose oil train crashed into the Quebec town has blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly. A fire on the train just hours before the crash is also being investigated.

Parts of the devastated town had been too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies even days after the disaster. Some 60 had been presumed missing earlier.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled downhill for seven miles (11 kilometers) before derailing in the center of Lac-Megantic. All but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

The crash raised questions about the increasing use of rail to transport oil in North America.

Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway's parent company, Rail World Inc., said the engineer has been suspended without pay and was under "police control."

"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."

Burkhardt encountered sharp criticism from Quebec politicians and jeers from Lac-Megantic residents while making his first visit to the town.

Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company's response to the disaster. She depicted Burkhardt's attitude and response as "deplorable" and "unacceptable."

Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash.

The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape on Wednesday — not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks.

The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.

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Associated Press writers Sean Farrell in Lac-Megantic and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.

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