The confirmed death toll in the Lac-Megantic train derailment disaster continues to rise, with police announcing Thursday that 24 bodies have now been recovered.

The coroner’s office also confirmed reports that 93-year-old Elianne Parenteau was the first victim to be identified.

More than 25 people are still missing and presumed dead, meaning the death toll could reach 50.

The update came after 600 residents of Lac-Megantic were told that they can now return home.

Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche also officially declared a state of emergency Thursday, saying it will remain in effect until further notice.

About 2,000 residents were forced to flee when an unmanned train carrying crude oil careened into Lac-Megantic, skipped the tracks and sparked massive explosions that destroyed half of the downtown core.

Two hundred people still can’t go back to the so-called “red zone” – the hardest-hit area. A 53-year-old man is facing charges for trying to enter the red zone Wednesday night, police said.

Roy-Laroche thanked all those who have been supporting the town since the disaster, but had harsh words for the head of the rail company responsible for the train, Edward Burkhardt.

“He should have communicated with us much earlier. I’m very angry,” she said of Burkhardt’s first visit to Lac-Megantic on Wednesday afternoon.

Roy-Laroche also said she was expecting to meet with Burkhardt Wednesday, but someone called 30 minutes beforehand to say he couldn't make it.

Burkhardt, the CEO of the Chicago-based Rail World and chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways Inc., was also criticized by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who called his handling of the situation “deplorable.”

"The leader of this business should have been here right from the beginning,” Marois said Thursday after arriving in Lac-Megantic to tour the disaster site.

Marois also called on the federal government to commit financial support to recovery efforts in Lac-Megantic.

Marois has already pledged $60 million to help the community, noting each family affected by the disaster would receive $1,000 for food and other essentials. She said $25 million would be made available immediately.

"The families that are grieving, we are with them. And as premier of Quebec, I believe I can say I speak on behalf of all Quebecers who want to tell you we are in solidarity and sympathy with you," Marois said

Marois added that Burkhardt and his company should provide financial help to Lac-Megantic as it tries to recover and rebuild.

Burkhardt has said his company will do everything it can to help, and said he intentionally delayed his arrival because he could be of greater help working from his office in Chicago, rather than on the scene.

Meanwhile, residents of Lac-Megantic continue to brace for a rising death toll as investigators continue to locate victims of the deadly train derailment.

Memorial site

Officials said Thursday that a memorial site for grieving families will be opened at a local church, where people can drop off flowers and photos.

Reporters were asked to stay away from the church and respect the residents’ privacy.

Mental-health services are also being offered at the local high school where evacuees and others have been gathering since the derailment.

Anyone suffering from anxiety or depression is being urged to see one of the health workers there.

Use of hand brakes being questioned

As the investigation in the derailment continues, Burkhardt surprised many on Wednesday by saying he now believes the engineer operating the train is partially at fault.

Burkhardt said he initially believed the engineer when said he had applied all 11 hand brakes before parking the train for the night about 12 kilometres outside Lac-Megantic.

During his visit to Lac-Megantic on Wednesday, Burkhardt said he no longer believes that’s true.

It's believed that firefighters who responded to a blaze on the train in Nantes, Que. before the derailment turned the locomotive off. Doing so would have shut off the airbrakes, but if all 11 handbrakes had been applied the train likely wouldn’t have moved.

Around 1 a.m. Saturday, after firefighters had left, the train began rolling downhill, unmanned, and eventually skipped the track in Lac-Megantic.

Burkhardt had originally laid the blame squarely on firefighters, saying he believed the engineer's claim that he had applied all the necessary hand brakes.

MMA is setting up an office in Lac-Megantic to help deal with the fallout from the crash.

Red Cross

The Red Cross is taking donations to help the residents of Lac-Megantic. Those interested can visit the Canadian Red Cross website, call 1-800-418-1111, or send cash or a cheque to:

To make a donation by cheque or cash, please send your donation made payable to The Canadian Red Cross by mailing your donation to:

Canadian Red Cross

6 place du Commerce

Verdun (Quebec) H3E 1P4

If mailing a donation, it should be marked for the Lac-Mégantic Support fund.