By Phil Wahba
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - Two residents of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, where a runaway train derailed and exploded into a wall of fire that killed 50 people, have launched a class action lawsuit to win compensation for the small community.
The plaintiffs, Guy Ouellet and Yannick Gagné, are seeking damages after the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway train of 72 oil tanker cars crashed on July 6 into the center of the lakeside town near the Maine border, destroying buildings and businesses, and leaving a community in mourning.
Ouellet lost his partner, Diane Bizier, in the explosion, while Gagné's popular bar, the Musi-Cafe, was leveled by the blast and subsequent fire. The bar was filled with people at the time of the accident, and most are presumed dead.
Thirty-seven bodies have so far been recovered from the blackened remains of the town's historic downtown, with around 13 people still missing and presumed dead in what is one of the worst railway disasters in Canada's history.
The railway's chairman, Edward Burkhardt, apologized to the town of about 6,000 last week and acknowledged corporate liability. The company has said the engineer who parked the train in a nearby town uphill from Lac-Megantic likely failed to set sufficient hand brakes.
The center of Lac-Megantic remains closed to residents and visitors as police and investigators sift through wreckage and tear down buildings considered structurally unsound after the explosions, which have reopened the debate over the safety of moving crude oil by rail.
The probe, which could take months to complete, is also likely to also spur tougher regulations for companies operating in the railway industry.
The motion to bring a class action suit, to be filed in the district of Saint-Francois, in southeastern Quebec, seeks compensation for those who have lost loved ones or were injured in the explosions. It also includes claims for property or business losses.
Burkhardt and railway President Robert Grindrod are named in the document, along with numerous other company executives, as is Thomas Harding, who was the train's engineer.
Representatives from the company did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. Harding has remained out of sight and Reuters has not been able to reach him for comment.
"The suffering endured by this community and the suffering that is still ongoing has been truly incomprehensible," Daniel Larochelle, a Lac-Megantic based lawyer who assembled the legal team, said in a statement.
That team includes the Consumer Law Group of Montreal, Rochon Genova LLP of Toronto and Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein LLP of New York and San Francisco.
"These firms have extensive experience pursuing large tort actions and in seeking compensation for victims following disasters including the BP Gulf oil spill litigation and in Exxon Valdez," Toronto law firm Rochon Genova said.
The case number is Quebec Superior Court 450-06-000001-135.
(Writing by Julie Gordon; Editing by Janet Guttsman,; Peter Galloway and Cynthia Osterman)