(Lac-Megantic, Quebec – July 6, 2013)
Air Brakes holding a 73-car, five locomotive train carrying 72 tank cars loaded with crude oil from the North Dakota Baaken oil fields and bound for a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada apparently failed around 1:00 A.M. Saturday morning. Allowing the train to roll seven miles into the small Quebec lakeside community of Lac-Megantic, where it derailed, exploded, and has thus far resulted in 13 confirmed dead, with another 40 residents of the town’s 6,000 population missing and feared dead. At least a third of the community’s residents had to be evacuated to escape the fires and more potential explosions.
Even though the tragedy occurred a few miles north of the Maine border with Canada, United States railroad involvement was clearly present throughout the tragedy. Besides the North Dakota origin of the train, ownership of the 510 mile-long Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway lies in the Chicago, IL-suburb of Rosemont, IL, where it is controlled by the Rail World Corporation headed by renowned American railroad manager Ed Burkhardt. Burkhardt, who holds the positions of president of Rail World and chairman of the MM&A Ry., which operates in Maine and Vermont and the Canadian province of Quebec, is well-experienced in railroad management circles. He was named “Railroader of the Year” by the prestigious Railway Age Magazine for his leadership of Wisconsin Central railroad in 1999. After his departure from WC, his Rail World group acquired the assets now known as the MM&A Railway in 2003.
“No matter what mode of transportation, you are going to have incidents,” said MM&A Vice President of Marketing Joe McGonigle. “That’s been proven. This is an unfortunate incident.”
McGonigle also discounted any suspicion of criminal or terrorist activity involved in the accident.
The train had been secured with its locomotives running at idle in order to maintain air brake pressure in the nearby Canadian community of Nantes, QU, and the train crew had retired to a local hotel. But at about 11:30 P.M. Friday night, the local volunteer fire department had been called to extinguish a small fire reportedly on one of the unmanned locomotives, and may have shut down the idling engines in the process, although a member of the railroad’s engineering dept. had arrived on the site to assist the firemen in their efforts. His involvement in the situation was unknown.
Nantes resident Andre Gendron, who lives near the railroad yard where the train had been left parked, said that about five minutes after the firefighters departed, “I felt the vibration of the train moving down the track. I then saw the train move by without its lights on, and it wasn’t long after that I heard the explosion.”
The train came careening through the picturesque lake community’s entertainment district at peak bar time, derailed, and had at least five tank cars explode. Local resident Anne-Julie Huot, 27, said at least five friends and 20 acquaintances whom she knew were at one of the local bars that night were still missing and unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the local coroner said that recovery of some of the victims’ bodies may be impossible due to the intensity of the blasts and the ensuing fires. Genevia ve Guilbault explained that “the bodies are so badly burned that identifying them could take a long time.”
Touring the tragic scene Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the event “an unbelievable disaster,” and likened the condition of the town as being “like a war zone.”
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” countered Chairman Burkhardt. “well, I think we’ve blown it here.” Burkhardt told reporters from Reuters News Service that he expected claims on the tragedy would “be a lot of money,” but felt confident that the company and its insurer could handle the claims financially.