By P.J. Huffstutter and Richard Valdmanis
CHICAGO/LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - The short length of track, nestled in a dark pine and birch forest in Quebec, is a regular overnight stop for freight trains hauling crude oil and other raw materials across North America.
Normally, before retiring for the night, the train operator sets the hand brakes and leaves one locomotive running to power the air brakes that help hold the train in place on the gently sloping track. The next morning, the operator or a relief engineer starts up the train and continues on their way.
Last weekend, the system failed. The locomotive caught fire, so firefighters shut off the engine to stop the flames from spreading. That slowly disengaged the air brakes, and the driverless train carrying 72 cars of crude oil rolled downhill into the scenic lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, derailing, exploding and leveling the town center.
At least 13 people were killed and some 37 are still missing, according to Canadian police. Few residents expect any of the missing to be found alive.
The catastrophe could force policymakers across North America to rethink the practice of shipping crude by rail - a century-old business that has boomed with the surge in shale oil production.
Based on Reuters interviews with witnesses, fire services and the head of the train company, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), a tale emerges of how the brakes on a train parked on a slope were released leading to tragedy.
The accounts also frame the critical questions that investigators will be asking over the next few days and weeks. In particular, whether there was clear communication between the firefighters and the train operator, and whether anyone in authority saw the train start to roll down the hill before it picked up momentum and crashed into the town.
According to MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt, the train operator was an experienced Canadian engineer who had parked the train in the small town of Nantes at a siding, a short length of track where trains make overnight stops. The siding is about 7 miles from Lac-Megantic.
He secured the train at 11:25 p.m. on Friday, setting the air brakes and hand brakes, according to MMA. Burkhardt said the engineer set the brakes on all five locomotives at the front of the train, as well as brakes on a number of cars, in line with company policy. Four of the train's engines were switched off, but the front locomotive was left on to power the airbrakes. The engineer, who Burkhardt declined to name, then retired to a hotel in Lac-Megantic.
Soon after, things started to go wrong. Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said the fire department got a call about a blaze on one of the locomotives at 11:30 p.m. He said the fire was likely caused by a broken fuel or oil line.
Firefighters reached the scene within seven minutes.
"It was a good sized fire, but it was contained in the motor of the train," Lambert told Reuters. "By 12:12, the fire was completely out."
But as they extinguished the fire, the 12 volunteer firemen also switched off the locomotive, in line with their own protocols, to prevent fuel from circulating into the flames.
One of the many unknowns in the story is precisely what happened next.
Lambert said the fire department contacted the railway's regional office in Farnham, Quebec, and spoke to the dispatcher. "We told them what we did and how we did it," Lambert said. "There was no discussion of the brakes at that time. We were there for the train fire. As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them."
It was not known what the dispatcher did after receiving the call. Burkhardt said he was not sure if the dispatcher was told that the engine had been shut down, or what the dispatcher did after receiving the call. The company is still investigating the incident, as are Canadian authorities.
"This is all within the scope of our investigation," said Benoit Richard, a spokesman for the Quebec provincial police.
Burkhardt said the fire department should have tried to contact a local engineer who would have known how to secure the train. The hand brakes alone were not enough to keep the train in place after the pressure leaked out of the air brakes, he said.
"If they had actually talked to an engineer he would've known immediately what to do about that. I don't know what they actually said to the dispatcher," Burkhardt said in an interview in his office, decked out with model trains, rail posters and other railroad memorabilia, in a seven-storey building near Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
Shortly after the firefighters left the Nantes siding, an eyewitness reports seeing the train - some four-fifths of a mile long - start rolling down the gentle hill.
"About five minutes after the firemen left, I felt the vibration of a train moving down the track. I then saw the train move by without its lights on," said Andre Gendron, 38, whose trailer and off-the-grid wooden cabin are the only buildings anywhere near the rail siding.
"I found it strange its lights weren't on and thought it was an electrical problem on board. It wasn't long after that I heard the explosion. I could see the light from the fires in Lac-Megantic."
Burkhardt said the train picked up speed quickly and was likely going "far, far faster" than the speed limit of 10 miles per hour (16 km per hour) as it reached a curve in the track in the very center of Lac-Megantic at around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday and jumped the tracks.
He said the locomotives separated from the buffer car - a heavy railcar loaded with stones or rocks or sand - and the tanker cars, which were laden with a free-flowing type of Bakken oil from North Dakota.
Lac-Megantic residents reported hearing a series of five or six explosions. The crude caught on fire, spread through the storm drains and spilled into the deep blue lake that the town was named after.
"This was a huge derailment. If you have a pile-up of cars like this, you are going to have a multitude of sparks," Burkhardt said. "The whole train was compressed into a few hundred feet in some spots. And cars piled three high in certain places."
"It's awful, it's absolutely awful," said Burkhardt, a slender, gray-haired rail industry veteran who is also president of Rail World Inc, a privately held rail management and investment firm that is the parent company of MMA.
Pictures taken from the air on Monday show blackened tanker cars concertinaed on top of the space where the popular Musi-Cafe used to be, a night-time hangout that was packed when the train roared into town.
Eyewitness Bernard Theberge, 44, said about 50 people were inside the bar as the train approached, and he was outside on the terrace.
"There was a big explosion, the heat reached the cafe and then a big wall of fire enveloped the road.... It all happened so fast, in the space of a minute," he said.
"There were people inside. I thought for maybe two seconds that I should go in, but the heat was too strong to get to the door," said Theberge, who escaped with second-degree burns.
(Reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Nantes, Quebec, and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Lac-Magentic; Writing by Janet Guttsman; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Lisa Shumaker)