(Adds comments by rail company head and residents)
By Julie Gordon and Richard Valdmanis
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, July 10 (Reuters) - The head of the company whose oil-tanker train exploded and devastated a small Quebec town faced cries of “murderer” from furious town residents on Wednesday and he said the train’s hand brakes were likely not set properly, causing the calamity.
Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) Chairman Ed Burkhardt made his comments - his clearest yet on what he thought had gone wrong - as more than 200 investigators sifted through charred wreckage in the center in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Magentic, in what authorities say is a crime scene. They have made no arrests.
Sixty people are either dead or missing after the train - which had been parked on a slope 12 km (8 miles) away on Friday night - moved off, without a driver, accelerating downhill into Lac-Megantic. There it derailed and blew up around 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday.
Dozens of buildings were flattened in the historic center of the lakeside town, including a popular bar that was crowded when the explosion occurred.
One focus of the probe is whether the engineer, the train’s only operator, set enough hand brakes on the train when he parked it at the end of his shift on Friday night.
“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,” Burkhardt told an often raw and unruly outdoor news conference in Lac-Megantic.
As he spoke, irate town residents looked on and called out repeatedly, on occasion drowning out his words.
“There are no words to describe what this man did here,” Alyssia Bolduc, 23, told Reuters afterwards.
Only 15 bodies have been recovered, none of which have yet been identified, and relatives hold out little hope that anyone will now be found alive, given the scale of the destruction.
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.”
MMA is one of many North American railroads that have 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.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board has said it wants to know if MMA followed proper safety procedures when the 72-car train was parked for the night before it rolled downhill and slammed into Lac-Megantic.
After it was parked, a small fire broke out on one of the train’s locomotives. MMA executives say they believe the train’s air brakes failed after local firefighters shut down the locomotive’s engine to fight the fire. 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.
The failure of the air brakes should not have caused the disaster since Canadian regulations say enough hand brakes must 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.
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 long history of accidents in Canada, according to Transportation Safety Board data, which shows 129 accidents, including 77 derailments - some of them minor - since 2003. It is one of only two rail companies in Canada, both of them small, that is allowed to operate trains manned by a single engineer.
A TSB official said she could not immediately say how MMA’s accident rate compared with other rail operators in the country.
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 local 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.
“After that tragedy, after watching that fire burn half the downtown, we are happy to be back home,” said Denis Leveille, 57. “But we’re not really settled in, because we don’t have electricity right now. Our only power is that yellow cord there,” he said, pointing to an extension cable running out a front window and across the yard to a neighbor’s house.
“We need that for the fridge and the coffee maker - so we have coffee in the morning and beer at night.” (Writing by David Ljunggren and Janet Guttsman; additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Peter N. Henderson; Editing by Peter Galloway)