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Like a war zone: Death toll in Quebec train derailment climbs to 14

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The Canadian Press

Monday, July 8, 2013, 11:21 AM -

Dozens of people are still missing and the official death toll has climbed 14 after the weekend rail disaster that devastated much of Lac-Megantic, authorities said Monday.

Safety concerns prevented any overnight search operations, Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard told a news conference.

"We are are still talking about [dozens of] people who are reported missing and we don't know their whereabouts,'' Richard said. "As for the hot spots, that's under the firefighters' supervision. 

Of course, there's been a lot of work done on the scene during the night and hopefully, we can get some more areas we can search during the day.

Health and civil security officials held a separate news conference and said some residents might be allowed back home later Monday.

They also said the situation was improving in certain areas in terms of air quality and drinking water.

About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars laden with oil caught fire shortly after 1 am Saturday.

The multiple blasts over a span of several hours sent people fleeing as the explosions rocked the municipality of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal. 

After viewing the devastation in the town on Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened the downtown of Lac-Megantic to a ''war zone.'' 

''It's a beautiful downtown here that's been destroyed.. There's really going to be a need for substantial reconstruction," Harper said.

In terms of financial aid, Harper said there is a formula that calculates the federal response for events like this. 

When asked about railway safety concerns, Harper said it was too early to discuss causes. 

The prime minister said the federal Transportation Safety Board, and also the police, would be investigating. Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.

Harper greeted and shook hands with people at a shelter for evacuees, which was set up at a high school after nearly a third of the town's residents were forced from their homes Saturday. Throughout the day Sunday, people streamed in and out of the shelter.

Health-care workers offered services such as psychological counselling, while volunteers handed out snacks and bottled water.

On Sunday, the railway, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said the locomotive was somehow shut down after the engineer left the train.

It said he had locked the brakes before leaving the train. That shutdown ''may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place,'' the statement said.

''As mentioned above, we don't have complete information concerning this incident, but will co-operate with government authorities as they continue their investigation.''

The president of the railway's parent company, Rail World Inc., had said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before it became loose and began careening into town.

There might have been warning signs hours before the disaster.

Witnesses in the neighbouring community of Nantes, where the train had been parked before breaking loose, said Sunday that they had seen sparks and a cloud of diesel smoke as it came to a stop a few hours before the derailment.

Lac-Megantic's fire chief said that Nantes firefighters had answered a call about a fire aboard the locomotive less than three hours before the train rumbled into Lac-Megantic.

Federal TSB officials said they planned to interview all possible participants as part of what they called a "360-degree,'' top-to-bottom, investigation.

They said they had retrieved a so-called "black box'' from the train Sunday.

Charred rubble is all that remains of the centre of Lac-Megantic

Charred rubble is all that remains of the centre of Lac-Megantic

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