07/10/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic Explosion: Ed Burkhardt Visits Devastated Town

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The embattled rail company involved in the Lac-Megantic derailment has suspended an employee linked to the disaster, now feared to have killed 50 people.

The railway revealed Wednesday that it had sidelined the employee amid concerns that he might not have properly applied the brakes on the train.

That statement from railway president Ed Burkhardt came during a contrite visit to the battered town where he was heckled by locals while being escorted around by police.

The Rail World Inc. president said his train engineer had declared that he'd set the required 11 handbrakes on the vehicle, but that the statement had since fallen into doubt.

He said his employee had been suspended pending a police investigation — which is an abrupt reversal from the public message his company had been delivering the previous day.

"I think he did something wrong," Burkhardt said Wednesday.

"We don't summarily fire people and we have to go through a process with the union... (But) I don't think he'll be back working for us, that's my personal opinion."

Burkhardt said police have talked about prosecuting his engineer and that they have told the man to stay where he is.

Repeated attempts to reach the train engineer over the last two days have been unsuccessful and the union representing him refused to comment Wednesday.

Just a day earlier the company called the engineer, Quebec resident Tom Harding, a "hero" for apparently rushing to the scene and managing to stop some of the ghost cars.

The latest account is also vastly different from that of previous days when the company appeared to be directing blame at the neighbouring municipality's fire department instead.

The railway had said that, shortly before the disaster, the department in Nantes had shut off the engine while fighting an earlier blaze and that affected the brakes. The fire department, however, said it was simply applying proper procedure.

It's unclear how those two sides left off before they exited the scene. However, the train was left unattended, took off, and began rolling downhill with increasing speed on a destructive 20-minute journey to Lac-Megantic.

The federal Transportation Safety Board is investigating and provincial police are conducting a separate criminal probe in which they have already interviewed 70 people — including the railway boss Wednesday.

Police are now warning of worse news ahead.

''Now we are standing here with a number of 50 persons we are considering as missing and most probably dead in this tragedy,'' said provincial police Insp. Michel Forget.

Among the 50 people considered missing, the official death toll of bodies found stands at 20. One victim has been identified, although the individual's identity has not been made public.

In his account to media Wednesday, Burkhardt said the fire department was dealing with another company employee on-site, a track foreman, who was not familiar with diesel engines. Meanwhile, he said, the fire department was not familiar with train safety.

He has stated that the fire department should have called Harding, who had completed his shift and went off to sleep at a hotel.

But Burkhardt appeared to turn on his engineer Wednesday.

"We think he applied some handbrakes — the question is, did he apply enough of them? He's told us that he applied 11 handbrakes and our general feeling now is that that is not true. Initially, we took him at his word," he said.

"It seems that adequate handbrakes were not set on this train and it's the engineer's responsibility to set them."

The issue of culpability could carry deep financial consequences as threats of lawsuits have already surfaced, and various players are preparing for an expensive rebuilding effort.

The Quebec government announced Wednesday an initial $60-million fund to help victims, while declaring that flags across the province would spend a week lowered to half-mast.

Burkhardt promised the company's full assistance.

He said it would partner with the Red Cross, insurers and governments to help fund humanitarian aid and reconstruction of homes.

"Our financial resources are going to be devoted to this," said the veteran railman.

"This comes first."

The company has attracted considerable criticism for its response to the crisis.

Before arriving in town, four days after the disaster, the president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic's Chicago-based holding company — Rail World Inc. — joked in interviews about the angry response he might get from the locals.

Burkhardt quipped about having to wear a bullet-proof vest when he visited.

Even Wednesday, he again showed flashes of his sense of humour. A reporter asked how much he was worth, financially. Burkhardt replied: "A whole lot less than I was Saturday."

He also joked about safety at one point while he was walking alongside a horde of journalists. More than a dozen news photographers and TV camera people walked backwards ahead of him to capture his image.

"Walking backwards is very dangerous," Burkhardt said.

"We're having a conversation about safety and you guys are doing something very unsafe right now."

The French version of its website remains under construction, and a translated French-language news release sent over the weekend was riddled with errors.

The provincial government added new criticism Wednesday.

"It's a completely deplorable attitude from the company," said Premier Pauline Marois. "I understand he doesn't speak French but he could have gotten someone and been there on-site."

Meanwhile, Marois revealed that her government has taken a step that, in normal times, she conceded would be unusual.

She said the province's finance minister called the head of the Caisse de depot et placement to inquire about its holdings in the MMA railway.

The giant pension-fund manager is supposed to be a hands-off institution — with political interference to be avoided at risk of damaging Quebecers' savings with politically motivated investment decisions.

Marois said Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau had called to "seek information" about the Caisse, the $176-billion fund that holds a minority share in the railway.

The Caisse has a 12.77 per cent share in the railway — but that investment is worth almost nothing, estimated at $1,000 at the end of 2012. This is after the Caisse invested $7 million in share capital in 2003, and provided a $7.7 million loan that was fully repaid in 2011.

Burkhardt speculated that the tragedy would lead to changes in industry policy.

He said his company has already stopped using one-man crews.

"I really question right now whether that should continue (in the industry) — I don't think it will," he said.

"It certainly will not on this railway."

He became agitated when asked why he hadn't apologized yet.

Burkhardt responded to a reporter that perhaps he hadn't been listening to the first dozen apologies — then said he would add another one, making what he called one more "abject apology."

Following the news conference, Burkhardt was taken in an unmarked police car to meet with investigators at the provincial police station in Lac-Megantic.

Burkhardt and MMA president, Robert Grindrod, spent more than four hours at the department before leaving in a station wagon with Maine licence plates.

"Oh, all kinds of questions," Burkhardt said to a reporter when he was asked what police asked him about.

The railway boss did not respond when asked whether he could face charges and declined to say whether police asked him about Harding, his suspended engineer.

"I'm not going to answer any questions."

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