The official death toll from Saturday's train crash in Quebec has reached 50 after authorities informed grieving families that dozens of people still missing are now presumed dead.
Officials said on Wednesday evening that 20 bodies had been found in the area following the crash of a runaway oil train in Canada's deadliest railway tragedy in almost 150 years, and 30 people were missing.
"We informed them of the potential loss of their loved ones," said Quebec police inspector Michel Forget, who came to an afternoon news briefing after meeting families of the dead and the missing. "You have to understand that it's a very emotional moment."
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early on Saturday, speeding downhill nearly 11km and jumping the tracks at 63 mph in Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, investigators said.
All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil and at least five exploded, also destroying about 30 buildings, including 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.
The intensity of the explosions and fire made parts of the devastated town too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies days after the disaster, officials said.
"Only one body had been formally identified," said Genevieve Guilbault of the coroner's office. She described efforts to identify the other remains as "very long and arduous work".
Edward Burkhardt, head of the railway's parent company, blamed the train's engineer for “improperly setting its brakes” before the disaster.
“The train's engineer had been suspended without pay and was under police control,” said Burkhardt, who was expected to meet residents and the mayor on Thursday.
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?" Burkhardt said, adding, "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that's not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don't."
At a news conference shortly before Burkhardt's arrival, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois pointed to faults in his company's response.
“We have realised there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public,” Marois said while describing Burkhardt's attitude as "deplorable and unacceptable".
Talking to the media, Burkhardt defended the practice of leaving trains unmanned, as was the case when the train rolled away.
"But for the future we, and I think probably the rest of the industry, aren't going to be leaving these trains unmanned," Burkhardt said. "We'll take the lead with that. I think the rest of the industry is going to follow."
The derailment is Canada's worst railway disaster since a train plunged into a Quebec river in 1864, killing 99.