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Quebec premier rebukes head of US rail firm

First victim of derailment ID’d; death toll at 24

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois embraced Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son and two daughters-in-law in the crash, during her visit to Lac-Megantic on Thursday.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via Associated Press

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois embraced Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son and two daughters-in-law in the crash, during her visit to Lac-Megantic on Thursday.

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, as the intensity of the fire has slowed searches for the 50 people presumed dead.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois toured the traumatized town and sharply criticized the US railway’s chief for not responding in person more quickly to Canada’s worst railway disaster in nearly 150 years.

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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.

Edward Burkhardt, president and chief executive of US-based Rail World Inc., which owns the runaway train, was also in town. He arrived Wednesday with a police escort and faced jeers from residents.

Marois had earlier faulted Burkhardt for what she said was a slow response, and called the company’s chief behavior ‘‘deplorable’’ and ‘‘unacceptable.’’ She renewed some of the criticism Thursday.

‘‘I already commented on his behavior and the behavior of his company yesterday. The leader of this company should have been there from the beginning,’’ Marois said at a news conference.

Burkhardt said he had delayed his visit in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials in different places. He was planning to meet with residents and the mayor on Thursday.

‘‘I understand the extreme anger,’’ he said. ‘‘We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.’’

Burkhardt has blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned train hurtled down a 7-mile incline, derailed, and ignited in the center of Lac-Megantic early Saturday. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

Burkhardt said the train’s engineer had been suspended without pay and was under ‘‘police control.’’

Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees’ actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer.

‘‘We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?’’ he said. ‘‘He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that’s not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don’t.’’

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.

‘‘He’s not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him,’’ Burkhardt said. ‘‘I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges. . . . If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.’’

Investigators are also looking at a fire on the same train just hours before the disaster. A fire official has said the train’s power was shut down as standard operating procedure, meaning the train’s air brakes would have been disabled. In that case, hand brakes on individual train cars would have been needed.

The crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of rail to transport oil in North America, especially in the booming North Dakota oil fields and Alberta oil sands far from the sea.

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