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Criminal probe into Quebec oil train disaster

LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec -- Authorities said yesterday they have opened a criminal investigation into the fiery wreck of a runaway oil train as the death toll climbed to 15, with dozens more bodies feared buried in the blackened, burned-out ruins of this small town.

Quebec police Inspector Michel Forget said investigators have "discovered elements" that have led to a criminal probe. He gave no details.

Tangled debris and gas leaks hampered the search for bodies three days after the crash early Saturday that incinerated much of Lac-Mégantic's downtown and raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline.

Investigators zeroed in on whether a fire on the train a few hours before the disaster set off the deadly chain of events.

The death toll rose with the discovery of two more bodies yesterday. About three dozen more people were missing.

"This is a very risky environment. We have to secure the safety of those working there. We have some hot spots on the scene. There is some gas," Provincial Police Sgt. Benoit Richard said.

The bodies that have been recovered were burned so badly they have yet to be identified.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness nearly seven miles before jumping the tracks at 63 mph in the town, near the Maine border, investigators said. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.

The blasts destroyed about 30 buildings, including the Musi-Café, a popular bar that was filled at the time, and forced about a third of the town's 6,000 residents out of their homes.

Rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train's 18-minute journey because they didn't know it was happening themselves, Transportation Safety Board officials said yesterday. Such warning systems are in place on busier lines but not on secondary lines, said board manager Ed Belkaloul.

Resident Gilles Fluet saw the approaching train just before the derailment and explosions.

"It was moving at a hellish speed," he said. "No lights, no signals, nothing at all. There was no warning. It was a black blob that came out of nowhere." He had just said goodbye to friends at the Musi-Café and left. "A half-minute later and I wouldn't be talking to you right now," he said.

"There are those who ran fast and those who made the right decision. Those who fooled around trying to start their cars to leave the area, there are probably some who burned in them," Fluet said. "And some who weren't fast enough to escape the river of fire that ran down to the lake, they were roasted."

Efforts continued yesterday to stop crude oil spilled in the disaster from reaching the St. Lawrence River, the backbone of the province's water supply.

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