A fire aboard a parked freight train filled with oil may have set in motion the catastrophic accident that torched a Quebec town and left 13 dead and as many as 50 people missing, officials said today.
Using information gleaned from the train's black boxes and witness interviews, investigators from Canada's Transportation Safety Board have begun to piece together how a train parked safely uphill from the town of Lac-Megantic became dislodged and barrelled into the town, derailing and exploding into a fiery ball.
Rob Johnston of the TSB said that investigators now believe a small fire on the train's locomotive engine Saturday night may have set off the events that led to the derailment.
The engineer and crew aboard the train had arrived in Nantes, Quebec, around 11 p.m. Saturday, locked the train in its place for the night, and left.
Around 11:50 p.m., a fire broke out aboard the train, causing the rail traffic controller to call the fire department and the train's owner, the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railway, Inc.
Firefighters and an employe from the MMA arrived at the scene and put out the fire, he said.
But a short time later, around 12:50 a.m. on Sunday, the train started to move, said Johnston, a manager of the rail pipeline investigation branch of the TSB. Investigators still do not know how the train became loose or what role the fire played.
The rails around Nantes and Lac-Megantic have no sensors, and so the rail traffic controller never knew that the train had broken loose, Johnston said.
"The unmanned trains started to descend down a rolling grade to the center of Lac-Megantic," Johnston said. "In this area no types of track circuits, so the rail traffic controller would have had no way to know the train had moved."
The train then derailed at 1:14 a.m., with the cars becoming separated from the locomotive, causing fires that, coupled with the petroleum crude oil, caused the train to erupt into flames as it crashed into homes and buildings in Lac-Megantic.
At least 13 have been confirmed dead in the wreckage, and dozens are still missing. Many of the missing are believed to have been at a bar, Le Musi-Cafe, at the time of the accident. The train is believed to have struck the bar while on fire.
"This was an incredible accident," Johnston said. "All of our people want to do everything we can to do get to the bottom of this and make sure it doesn't happen again. "
Johnston said that investigators are trying to determine the cause of the fire and its role in the accident, as well as whether proper operational procedures were followed on the train before it was parked for the night.
The TSB investigators still need to interview witnesses and officials, as well as send parts of the train for testing at its lab in Ottawa, he said.
Searchers are still trying to comb through the rubble from the crash to reach the site of the bar.
Lac-Megantic schoolteacher Ann-Julie Hallee told ABC News that she believed some of her students were at the bar, Le Musi-Cafe, that burned down during the crash. She also said her aunt died at home in the blaze.
"My aunt, her house was burned down. She's 93. She didn't have time to get out of there," Hallee said. "You see those big tank cars, and it's like, OK, when is it going to happen? You know? When is this catastrophe going to happen?" Hallee said. "And then it happened. It happened. It's crazy. I'm sorry."