Skip to main content

Railroad CEO heckled in ravaged Quebec town

By Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 2:13 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At least 20 dead, 30 missing and "most probably" dead, police say
  • Railway CEO casts doubt on engineer's story
  • "They should put that guy in prison," heckler says
  • 72 unsecured oil tank cars roared into Lac-Megantic Saturday, killing at least 15

Lac-Megantic, Quebec (CNN) -- The head of the railway whose runaway train devastated a small Quebec town cast doubt on his engineer's story Wednesday as he arrived to face insults from survivors and harsh questions from reporters.

Edward Burkhardt said the engineer has been suspended without pay and faces a criminal investigation by Canadian authorities.

He said the engineer reported to railroad managers that he set 11 hand brakes on the train cars before they broke away from their engines, but "I think it's questionable whether he did."

"Our general feeling is now that is not true," said Burkhardt,chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. The engineer had worked for the MM&A for "many years" and "had a completely clear safety record up until Saturday," Burkhardt said.

Edward Burkhardt, CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways Inc., speaks on Wednesday, July 10, during a news conference. A train with 72 tanker cars carrying crude oil barreled down the track before derailing and exploding in Lac -Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, July 6. Edward Burkhardt, CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways Inc., speaks on Wednesday, July 10, during a news conference. A train with 72 tanker cars carrying crude oil barreled down the track before derailing and exploding in Lac -Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, July 6.
Train derails, explodes in Canadian town
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Train derails, explodes in Canadian town Photos: Train derails, explodes in Canadian town
An aerial photo from the Quebec Provincial Police shows the aftermath of a train derailment explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, July 6. Quebec provincial authorities have found 20 bodies, and 30 more are missing and "most probably dead." An aerial photo from the Quebec Provincial Police shows the aftermath of a train derailment explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, July 6. Quebec provincial authorities have found 20 bodies, and 30 more are missing and "most probably dead."
Canada train explosion from above
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Photos: Train derailment from above Photos: Train derailment from above
Anger in Lac-Megantic
Police: Someone tampered with train
Death toll rises in train explosion
Police: Train crash may be 'criminal'

Most of the 73-car train derailed in the center of Lac-Megantic early Saturday, and tank cars full of oil exploded and burned. Quebec provincial authorities have found 20 bodies, and 30 more are missing "and most probably dead," Quebec Provincial Police Capt. Michel Forget said Wednesday.

Graphic: Runaway train devastates Canadian town

Authorities have said those still missing may have been vaporized by the resulting inferno. The number of those unaccounted for dropped from the 45 reported earlier Wednesday, and Forget said the numbers could fluctuate as the investigation continues.

The railway cars strewn throughout the center of the town 6,000 have barely stopped smoldering, and the area around them remained cordoned off Wednesday afternoon.

Hundreds of evacuees, mostly older residents, were still taking shelter in a local school, said Myrian Marotte, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Red Cross.

In the beginning, there were 2,000 people who were forced to flee their homes, Marotte said

"Everyone here knows someone who was evacuated," she said. Nevertheless, she added, "You see a lot of solidarity and resilience."

A fair bit of anger was also on display as Burkhardt arrived Wednesday afternoon. Two middle-aged men shouted at him as he spoke with reporters, calling him an obscene name and challenging him to walk into the heart of the disaster.

One of the men, Pierre L'Heureux, told CNN he knew at least half the people who were dead or missing.

"They should put that guy in prison," L'Heureux said. "He's a murderer ... he should be in prison."

Burkhardt also was likely to face a chilly reception from Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche.

Burkhardt said he was trying to arrange meetings with the mayor, who would not tell reporters Wednesday whether she would meet with him.

Burkhardt said he felt "personally, absolutely rotten" about the crash and said his railroad would "stand up to our responsibility." As chairman, "I guess it's my role to collect all this criticism," he said.

"We think we have plenty of responsibility," he said. But whether the company bears "total responsibility" for the crash is "yet to be determined," he added.

The cars broke free from an MM&A train as it was parked in the nearby town of Nantes early Saturday, plunging down a seven-mile incline into Lac-Megantic.

Firefighters in Nantes had been called to put out a fire on the train before the cars broke away, and Burkhardt said those firefighters may have shut down systems on the train's five locomotives that contributed to the disaster.

"We felt this probably had an important part to play in this tragedy," he said.

The fire department in Nantes has rejected the notion.

The engineer had parked the train and set hand brakes on all five engines and then checked into a hotel for the night. Firefighters reported the blaze to a track maintenance man, who alerted the company to the incident, Burkhardt said.

The engines and nine other cars remained behind when the rest of the train broke away sometime later. They stopped a quarter of a mile away from their original parking spot in Nantes.

Police: Evidence criminal act may have led to train crash

Investigators have asked fire crews to stop spraying down the wreckage to preserve as much of the remaining evidence as possible. Quebec police spokesman Benoit Richard said Wednesday, "We are no longer treating this as just an accident."

Some of the evidence led investigators to believe a "criminal act" may have contributed to the train crash, Forget said Tuesday.

But Forget said authorities would lay no blame until the investigation shows exactly what happened.

All businesses and factories in the affected region that are able were reopening Wednesday morning, Roy-Laroche said. She said the Red Cross would begin distributing vouchers to those returning home for food and other essential items, with the funds for the vouchers donated by people in the community and businesses in the region.

The mayor urged tourists not to cancel their reservations in the area, noting that some 300,000 people visit the region between May and October every year. And she thanked people from around the world who sent messages in the aftermath of the tragedy.

"All these messages give us the strength to face this catastrophe," she said.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said the provincial government would provide $25 million in emergency assistance immediately, with another $25 million to help with reconstruction efforts.

"It's small comfort, we know," Marois said. But she said the government hopes rebuilding will become "a mobilizing force" for the town.

Tuesday, some 1,200 residents were allowed to return to their homes in the area. Among them was Michel Gagnon, who was eating lunch Wednesday on his patio, a few blocks from the edge of the cordon.

Gagnon said Lac-Megantic's downtown had lost everything, but within a few years, "everything will be back up."

CNN's Paula Newton, Ben Brumfield, Holly Yan, Umaro Djau, Jonathan Mann, Pierre Meilhan and Deanna Hackney contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
updated 5:45 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
The lives of everyone close to Oscar Pistorius and the girl he killed are changed forever, his siblings say.
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Serbia and Albania try to play but the major game is called off after a drone flying a political flag enters the stadium.
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
George Clooney's new wife, is now Amal Clooney, raising the issue of married names.
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
The mysterious unmanned X-37B space plane returns to Earth after more than two years in space. But the U.S. Air force isn't saying much.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT