07/09/2013 06:46 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic Explosions: Train Engineer Has Been Silent During Aftermath

UNDATED, - The engineer of the fateful train has faded from sight.

Tom Harding, the engineer of a train that exploded with deadly consequences in Lac-Megantic, Que., has avoided comment on the incident.

His company has cast him as a hero.

The president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said Tuesday that after he was alerted about the fiery accident in Lac-Megantic, Harding sought the help of local men with a mobile rail-car mover.

Robert Grindrod told The Canadian Press that Harding grabbed a firefighter's suit from an area department and pulled nine fuel-filled cars on the train away from explosive danger.

Grindrod said the first of those nine tankers was only about a metre from the licking flames. That's when Harding, he added, put his safety at risk by walking to the edge of the fire and uncoupling the last unscathed car from a burning one.

The effort removed a considerable amount of fuel from the fire, he said.

"It's a heroic act," Grindrod said as he stood in the parking lot of Lac-Megantic hotel.

"Undoubtedly, he saved (the area from) much more damage and more possible casualties."

But Harding's response was too late to avert disaster. The 72-car train had slammed into Lac-Megantic, set off powerful explosions, and left dozens of people dead or missing.

Grindrod said the whole incident has left Harding extremely rattled.

"I haven't seen him myself, but I understand he's devastated by this whole thing and I could certainly understand that," he said.

Harding was not available Tuesday to discuss his version of what happened. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Quebec provincial police are both investigating the disaster and will inevitably seek Harding's input into the events.

All that is known about his role is that he worked for a company that transported fuel trains with just one engineer aboard — and, on this train, he was it.

Harding's shift had ended and he'd retired to sleep at a hotel when disaster struck.

Numerous media converged Tuesday on his Quebec hometown of Farnham, a picturesque riverside community closer to Montreal than to the disaster site.

Attempts to ring the doorbell at his two-storey stone house proved fruitless.

Some of his friends who came to check on him also left without managing to get in. They declined to speak to a reporter outside the house.

Two of Harding's neighbours, however, sang his praises.

One man who has lived a few houses away from him for the last dozen years said he knew little more about Harding, other than to exchange pleasantries.

"He's an excellent neighbour — a really nice man," he said, while declining to be identified.

Both he and the other neighbour said they could understand Harding shying away from the spotlight. The other neighbour said the media should leave him alone, given what he's been through.

"I'm sure he's in shock too and he needs time too," the neighbour said.

Notes for Harding, left by reporters, remained in the mailbox uncollected.

However, similar notes left nearby at his mother's house apparently were picked up as they disappeared over the course of the day.

At Harding's mother's place, a big retriever poked its head around some blinds and barked whenever the doorbell rang.

A baby could be heard crying.

The railway's spokesman told different media that Harding was apparently roused from his sleep at a hotel when he heard the explosion.

That's when he rushed to the scene.

Harding would not have had much time to wake up; leave his hotel for the site; borrow a firefighting outfit; and get to work with the rail-car mover.

According to Transportation Safety Board officials, the runaway train started to pull out of the municipality of Nantes early Saturday at 12:56 a.m.

Within 18 minutes, they said, it had derailed in Lac-Megantic, with devastating consequences.

The head of the major stockholder of MMA said the engineer should have been called to the scene sooner. Ed Burkhardt, president of Rail World Inc., has said the derailment was caused by a chain of errors that started with the Nantes fire department.

He said it would have been different if someone had alerted his engineer.

"The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel and taken him to the scene with them," Burkhardt told reporters Tuesday after arriving at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.

"But it's easy to say what should have happened. We're dealing with what happened."

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