Residents of Lac-Mégantic, Que., are expecting a visit from the head of the U.S. rail company at the centre of last Saturday`s deadly tanker-train derailment.
It is unclear when Edward Burkhardt will arrive, but his absence in the community since the explosion hasn't gone unnoticed, and he is certain to face tough questions and a fair degree of anger when he does visit.
“I know there is a lot of anger” in the small community where at least 13 people and 50 are still missing, Burkhardt told CBC News, in French.
He noted he has received “a lot of hate messages.”
He added: “I hope I’m not going to get shot.”
By Monday, eight more bodies had been found in the small community about 250 kilometres east of Montreal, bringing the official body count to 13 people after the train carrying crude oil set off a series of explosions and flattened the town's busy downtown.
Police said some 50 people are missing — a figure that includes the 13 unidentified bodies that have been recovered since the train derailed at about 1 a.m. ET Saturday.
Police are asking family members to provide toothbrushes, combs, or other items that might provide DNA from their missing relatives to help investigators identify the bodies. About 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents were forced to leave their homes, but 1,500 of those evacuees may be able to return home as soon as today.
The rail tankers involved are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board investigator said in a telephone interview.
Flaws in the DOT-111 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.
Burkhardt was quoted in Montreal's La Presse newspaper as saying a different type of tank car wouldn't have made a difference in the tragedy.
Fought fire earlier
"I can't imagine a tank car that's solid enough to withstand what happened here," he said.
But as questions surface about the integrity of the tanker cars in an accident, the rail company and the fire department in the nearby town of Nantes appear to be pointing the finger at each other as investigators search for causes in the tragedy.
The fire chief in Nantes has offered an assessment different from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway about who might have been to blame in the hours leading up to the tragedy.
Patrick Lambert said his crew had been trained by MMA to handle fires on its line — and they intervened to fight four fires on MMA trains in the past eight years.
He said his firefighters had shut off the engine to battle a blaze on the train earlier Friday night, as the MMA operating procedure urged them to do. After extinguishing the fire, he said his crew received the company's blessing to leave the scene.
The company, however, said the fire crew should have alerted the engineer who by that point had gone home to sleep for the night.
With the fire crew gone, and the engineer in bed, the train began rolling downhill on a fateful, destructive journey.
Authorities have said they're investigating such procedural details as well as the possibility of other factors having been at play, as part of their criminal probe.
Transportation Minister Denis Lebel, who arrived in the town Monday afternoon, says it's too early to speculate about what or who may be to blame, given that the TSB hasn't finished its investigation, nor have Quebec police.
But he chided the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway for how it has handled the catastrophe, saying he has "asked them to have a better communication system with the community and with the government."
Burkhardt has been quoted in news reports as saying he's received many hateful messages and that he hopes he doesn't get shot at when he visits Lac-Mégantic, because he doesn't plan to wear a bullet-proof vest for his visit.
But even before he arrives, some residents have strong words for Burkhardt.
Richard Poirier, who was forced out of his home in Notre-Dame-de-Fatima, says he can't accept that the company has been so absent.
"I don't understand," he said. "I don't think it's right. They're not present at all."
Others, such as Raymond Lafontaine — whose son, two daughters-in-law and employee disappeared in the blast — urged the railway president to take a second look at his operations to ensure they meet safety regulations.
Lafontaine said he doesn't want dangerous material rolling through his town anymore. "It's an atomic bomb, it's dangerous," he said.
He fears unregulated trains will kill more people's children.
"Today, it's me," he said. "It's our town that is half-gone."
Local people have been quick to single out the company with complaints about its lack of visibility, its safety standards, and even the fact that a press release issued in French appeared sloppily translated and loaded with errors.
The manager of the Musi-Cafe bar, who lost friends and colleagues in the explosions, said Monday that her own anger is directed at the company.
"Enormously," said Sophie L'Heureux, who added that security procedures are clearly inadequate.
She believes the railway has been laying low since the incident because it knows it did something wrong.