(Adds death toll hits 50)
By Julie Gordon and Richard Valdmanis
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, July 10 (Reuters) - The head of the company whose runaway oil-tanker train exploded and devastated a Quebec town faced cries of “murderer” from residents on Wednesday, and he said the train’s hand brakes were likely set improperly, causing the calamity.
Police say they expect the death toll to rise to 50, confirming the worst fears of residents who had mostly given up hope that the missing would be found alive. Police earlier had said 60 people were dead or missing.
More than 200 investigators are sifting through charred wreckage in the center in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, in what authorities say is a crime scene. They have made no arrests.
The disaster happened early on Saturday after a parked Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA) train came free on a sloping stretch of rail line and headed downhill, without a driver, toward the lakeside town.
The train, with five locomotives hauling 72 cars of crude oil, derailed on a curve and blew up just after 1 a.m., flattening the center of the town in a series of massive explosions.
MMA, like many North American railroads, has vastly stepped up crude-by-rail deliveries as producers seek alternatives to pipelines that have been stretched to capacity by higher U.S. and Canadian output.
One focus of the probe into the disaster is whether the engineer, the train’s only operator, set enough hand brakes on the train when he parked it some eight miles (13 km) west of town at the end of his shift on Friday night.
The comments from MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt were his clearest yet on what he thought had gone wrong.
“It’s very questionable whether the hand brakes were properly applied on this train. As a matter of fact I’ll say they weren‘t, or we wouldn’t have had this incident,” he told an outdoor news conference in Lac-Megantic.
As he spoke, irate town residents looked on and called out repeatedly, on occasion drowning out his words. Some could be heard shouting “murderer!”
“There are no words to describe what this man did here,” Alyssia Bolduc, 23, told Reuters afterwards.
Burkhardt, who said he did not think sabotage was involved, told reporters he understood why people were angry.
“I feel absolutely awful about this. I‘m devastated by what’s occurred in this community,” he said. “We are making an abject apology to the people in this town.”
A death toll of 50 would make the accident Canada’s deadliest since in 1998, when a Swissair jet crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 229 people.
It would be North America’s worst rail crash since 112 people died when an 11-car passenger train plunged off a bridge in Mexico in 1989.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB), which is leading the investigation, wants to know if MMA followed proper safety procedures when the train was pulled up for the night.
After it was parked, a small fire broke out in one of the train’s locomotives. MMA executives say they believe the train’s air brakes failed after firefighters shut down the locomotive’s engine to fight the blaze. The engine was powering the air brakes.
“They (the firefighters) did what they thought was correct. It was an important causal factor in this whole thing. Do we hold them responsible? No,” Burkhardt said.
But the failure of the air brakes should not have caused the disaster since Canadian regulations say enough hand brakes must be set to ensure a parked train cannot move.
“It seems that adequate hand brakes were not set on this train and it was the engineer’s responsibility to set them,” Burkhardt said.
He said the engineer has been suspended without pay and he did not expect him to return to the company to work.
Reuters has not been able to reach the engineer. Union official Jocelyn Desjardins said he could not immediately provide the name of the engineer’s lawyer, or even confirm he has one.
MMA, which is headquartered in Chicago, has a history of accidents in Canada, according to TSB data. It shows 129 accidents, including 77 derailments - some of them minor - since 2003.
A TSB official said she could not immediately say how MMA’s accident rate compared with other rail operators in the country.
MMA is one of just two rail companies in Canada that is allowed to operate trains manned by a single engineer.
The destruction in Lac-Megantic forced about 2,000 people, roughly a third of the town’s population, to leave their homes and seek shelter in schools or with friends and family. Around 1,200 have since been allowed to return to their homes, some of which are still without power or water. (Writing by David Ljunggren and Janet Guttsman; additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Peter N. Henderson; Editing by Peter Galloway and Xavier Briand)