By Dave Crary
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec: The first victim of a runaway oil train’s explosive derailment in a Quebec town was identified Thursday, more than five days since the disaster, which left behind a scorched scene so dangerous that it slowed the search for 50 people presumed dead.
Quebec’s premier toured the traumatized town and sharply criticized the U.S. railway’s chief for not responding in person more quickly to Canada’s worst railway disaster in nearly 150 years.
Police said four more bodies had been found, bringing the total found to 24.
The first victim to be identified by the coroner’s office was 93-year-old Eliane Parenteau, who lived in the disaster zone in downtown Lac-Megantic. Those who knew her described her as being active for her age.
The devastated downtown remained dangerous for days after the crash as responders put out fires and struggled to keep the remaining oil tankers cool so they wouldn’t explode. The hazardous conditions delayed the search for the missing — and now for bodies.
Officials also have warned that identifications would be made more difficult by the incinerated scene.
Conditions had at least improved enough for nearly all the 2,000 residents forced to evacuate after the crash — a third of the population— to return home, the town’s mayor said.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois arrived in town and renewed her criticism of Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of U.S.-based Rail World Inc., which owns the runaway train.
“The leader of this company should have been there from the beginning,” Marois said at a news conference.
Burkhardt arrived in town for the first time Wednesday with a police escort, facing jeers from residents.
Burkhardt has said he delayed his visit to deal with the crisis from his Chicago office, saying he was better able to communicate from there.
“I understand the extreme anger,” he said. “We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.”
He has blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned train hurtled down a seven-mile incline, derailed and ignited. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
Burkhardt said the engineer had been suspended without pay and was under “police control.” Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec. Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.