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.