The rail engineer responsible for the train that exploded in Lac-Megantic was involved in another mishap a year earlier, CN Rail has revealed.
Tom Harding, an employee of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad, operated a train that derailed at a CN Rail yard in Ste-Hyacinthe, Que., on August 3, 2012, CN confirmed to multiple news outlets.
In a statement emailed to the press, CN spokesman Mark Hallman wanted to “make it very clear” that Harding was an employee of MMA, not CN, at the time.
Harding was reportedly not speaking to the press as of Thursday, but colleagues described him as "beside himself" over the disaster, the Toronto Star reported. Others described him as a "high-calibre" engineer and an "extremely competent man."
The news comes as the body count in the Lac-Megantic explosion rose to 20 on Thursday, as five more bodies were pulled from the disaster site. But officials say they now presume 50 missing people to be dead.
Ed Burkhardt, the chairman of MMA’s parent company, Rail World, has blamed Harding for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned train hurtled down an 11-kilometre incline, derailed and ignited in the centre of Lac-Megantic early Saturday. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.
Burkhardt said the train's engineer had been suspended without pay and was under "police control.''
Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees' actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer.
"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.''
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Tensions between the rail company and the community in Lac-Megantic have been growing since the blast Saturday morning, with many criticizing the railroad and Burkhardt for a slow response.
In a sign of the tensions present, the Montreal Gazette reported Wednesday that an MMA employee from Illinois called a local resident a “fucking frog” during a dispute over the taking of pictures.
Gazette photographer John Kenney was taking pictures of parked MMA rail cars near Lac-Megantic Tuesday when an MMA employee, identifying himself only as an investigator from Illinois, “approached [Kenney] and screamed at him menacingly,” the newspaper reported.
When a local resident, Alex Larabee, intervened in the dispute, he reportedly got an earful of abuse.
“I asked him if [the rail cars] were leaking. I asked in French and he started swearing at me in English, calling me a f---ing frog and all that,” Larabée said, as quoted at the Gazette.
“It really shows their flagrant lack of respect for us (residents),” Larabee said.
The allegation of a racist insult against a resident likely won’t help the public image of MMA and its parent company, Rail World. Chief executive Ed Burkhardt, arrived in Lac-Megantic on Wednesday (far too late, in the opinion of many residents) to jeers and cold stares from residents.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois toured the devastated town Thursday, taking another opportunity to criticize MMA for its response to the crisis.
Marois had earlier faulted Burkhardt for what she said was a slow response, and called the company's chief behaviour "deplorable'' and "unacceptable.'' She renewed some of the criticism Thursday.
"I already commented on his behaviour and the behaviour of his company yesterday. The leader of this company should have been there from the beginning,'' Marois said at a news conference.
Burkhardt said he had delayed his visit 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. He was planning to meet with residents and the mayor Thursday.
"I understand the extreme anger,'' he said. "We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.''
— With files from The Canadian Press