LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — The head of the U.S. railway company whose runaway oil train crashed into a Quebec town blamed the engineer Wednesday for failing to set the brakes properly before the train hurtled down a seven-mile (11-kilometer) incline, derailed and ignited a fire that killed at least 15 people and left dozens missing.
He said the engineer has been suspended without pay and was under police supervision.
The startling disclosures from Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., came as he encountered sharp criticism from Quebec politicians and jeers from Lac-Megantic residents while making his first visit to the lakeside town where some 60 people remain missing following Saturday’s disaster.
Until Wednesday, the railway had defended its employees’ actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer as culpable.
“We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?” Burkhardt said. “He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that’s not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don’t.”
He said the engineer was “under police control.”
“He’s not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him,” the CEO said. “I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges ... If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.”
Burkhardt did not name the engineer during his impromptu and sometimes chaotic outdoor news conference, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec and termed him a hero for rushing to the scene and managing to stop some of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train’s runaway cars. All but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
Burkhardt, who arrived in town with a police escort, said he had delayed his post-crash visit to Lac-Megantic in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials in different places during what he described as 20-hour work days.
“I understand the extreme anger,” he said, likening the devastation in Lac-Megantic to a war zone. “We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.”
He pledged that his company — which will likely face lawsuits — would work with local officials, relief groups and others to help the community recover.
“There’s no question our insurance capabilities will be tested,” he said.
After the wrecked cars are cleared away, Burkhardt said the railway would repair the tracks and resume train operations.
“Very carefully, I might tell you,” he said.
Asked if he’d build those tracks on the perimeter of the town instead of through it again, he said that was under consideration as a long-term plan.
In an exchange with reporters, Burkhardt defended the practice of leaving trains unmanned, as was the case when the runaway began.
“I don’t think it was wrong, but you always look at any accident and you say, ‘How could we have done better?’” he said. “And for the future we, and I think probably the rest of the industry, aren’t going to be leaving these trains unmanned. We’ll take the lead with that. I think the rest of the industry is going to follow.”
Among the residents looking on as Burkhardt spoke was Raymond Lafontaine, a prominent local businessman who is believed to have lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster.
“That man, I feel pity for him,” Lafontaine said. “Maybe some who know him properly may think he’s the greatest guy in the world, but with his actions, the wait that took place, it doesn’t look good.”
“If he had come with some people who speak French, if a team had come to see us and, ‘Yes, we’re here for you and there was an accident, yes, there was human error, yes, this happened,’ it seems like that would have hurt less,” LaFontaine added. “I would have been able to get through that. But this is inconceivable. I can’t accept it.”
At a news conference shortly before Burkhardt’s arrival in Lac-Megantic, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois also faulted the company’s response to the disaster.
“We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public,” Marois said.
She depicted Burkhardt’s attitude as “deplorable” and “unacceptable.”
“I understand he doesn’t speak French but he could have come,” she said.
Marois announced a $60 million fund to help victims in Lac-Megantic and to rebuild the town. She also directed that flags fly at half-staff around the province.
Well before Burkhardt’s comments, Quebec police had said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash. The heart of the town’s central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape on Wednesday — not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks.
The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESSs Sean Farrell in Lac-Megantic and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.