07/09/2013 07:10 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

'We blew it,' says head of train company in Quebec derailment

Edward Burkhardt, head of the train company whose rail tankers filled with oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic, says while his company bears some responsibility for the deadly explosions in the Quebec town, he does not feel guilty about what happened.

“I think we blew it on this instance. We blew it big time. This is awful. It's absolutely awful and very emotional to me when there are deaths and people out of their homes,” said Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) in an interview with Radio-Canada, regarding the company's safety record.

"We're trying to cope with this, but overall I think our operations are consistent with safety standards. Our safety records are pretty good.”

The 10-year-old company owns a 1,200-kilometre regional railway operating in Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.

“In the hindsight of a tragic accident you can say there was a mistake in the whole rail industry, coast to coast in two nations,” said Burkhardt. “What we’ve done is totally consistent with the way it's been done in other railways everywhere.”

Burkhardt said that MMA’s insurance company is co-operating and is preparing to accept claims from those affected by the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, the small community where at least 15 people have been confirmed dead, about 40 still missing and much of the town’s downtown core is destroyed.

“There will be extensive claims. No doubt about it. We'll have to deal with it,” Burkhardt said.

He plans to travel soon to Lac-Mégantic to meet with city officials and residents. He said he has received “numerous” angry phone calls and emails.

“That doesn't surprise me at all considering the aftermath of this disaster. It hardly could be otherwise. It's perfectly understandable that people are upset and angry with us,” he said.

Burkhardt said MMA is already considering changes that can be made to its operations, including ensuring trains are always guarded, and changing its engineer transfer location to Sherbrooke, about 100 kilometres west of Lac-Mégantic .

In 1999, Burkhardt was named "Railroader of the Year" by Railway Age magazine, one of 16 “Railroaders of the Century.”