07/12/2013 06:05 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic Explosions: The Moment When The Driver Rushed To The Scene

TSBCanada, Flickr
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - A description has emerged of the frantic moment when the train driver at the centre of the Quebec derailment disaster rushed to the fiery scene in the hope of saving lives.

One of the men who risked his life alongside Tom Harding said the railman's knowledge played a role in removing several oil-filled cars before they, too, could go up in flames in Lac-Megantic.

Serge Morin told The Canadian Press that the group of men were trying to detach a few rail cars from the rest of the derailed train when Harding suddenly appeared at their side amid the chaos, wearing a firefighting suit.

He doubts that their efforts made a difference in the tragic result: 50 people are feared to have been killed. But he saluted the bravery of the railman in helping steer scorching-hot tankers from the scene.

"He really helped us," Morin, who didn't catch Harding's name that night and only learned later that he was the train's driver, said in an interview Friday.

Morin credited Harding for guiding the group though the process of depressurizing the train's airbrakes, which enabled them to move some of the wagons to safety.

Harding's role that night is a central question in ongoing investigations into the tragedy; his own company has called him a hero one day then announced the next that he had been suspended amid concerns about his role in the disaster.

Morin, who has some experience fighting fires at the nearby plant where he works, said the group moved a total of nine cars about 500 metres from the blaze using a loader and a mobile rail-car mover.

He had brought the rail-car mover from his factory. But after moving the first string of five tankers, the rail-car mover was unable to find a level crossing to re-enter the tracks.

The loader, Morin said, was not equipped with a tool designed to deactivate the airbrakes.

That's around the time Harding appeared. He came wearing a firesuit, helmet and visor he had borrowed from the municipal fire department.

Morin said he was surprised to see a railway worker arrive at their side amid the chaos and intense heat around them.

Harding, Morin added, told them to break the tubing on the wagons with the loader to release the air.

"What is certain is that he knew this stuff and, yes, at first glance, he was needed because we wouldn't have been able to move (the tankers) with the loader," Morin said.

Morin described all the men as nervous and, after one particularly big blast, they all questioned whether they should continue.

"At that moment we asked each other, 'Do we continue?' "

After 15-second pause, they had made their decision, he added.

"We said, 'Let's do it.' "

Morin said he only exchanged a few words with Harding.

Harding had completed his shift earlier that evening and left the train unattended to sleep at a local inn. A worker at the inn described him rushing out of his room, toward the scene, with a look of horror on his face after he heard the initial explosion.

The president of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has said Harding stated he'd shut down 11 handbrakes on the train, but that his claim had been called into question.

He said Harding is under police watch, that criminal charges are now being considered in the case, and Harding will likely never work for MMA again.

Several people in Lac-Megantic have described Harding as a friendly anglophone who enjoyed chatting with locals in his accented French during his regular stopovers in town.

They have also shared some details about Harding's whereabouts on that tragic night.

A taxi driver recalled something unusual when he picked up Harding from work.

The cabbie met Harding at the spot where he parked the train in Nantes, Que., uphill from Lac-Megantic. He said his regular customer seemed fine, with nothing out of the ordinary.

However, Andre Turcotte did say that the idling engine appeared to be belching out more smoke than usual — so much that he recalled oil droplets from locomotive exhaust landing on his car.

He said he asked Harding — twice — whether the puffs of smoke were particularly hazardous for the environment.

His client, Turcotte added, calmly responded that he had followed company directives to deal with the issue.

A short time after they left for the 10-kilometre ride to the inn, the locomotive caught fire, a blaze that was extinguished by the local fire department.

The details of what happened next will be at the heart of investigations by police, the federal Transportation Safety Board, potential lawsuits, and untold insurance claims.

His initial reaction to the explosion was described by an employee at the inn.

Catherine Pomerleau-Pelletier was on the hotel bar's outdoor patio when the lights started to flicker. Moments later, a massive blast drove rattled guests from the rooms, including Harding.

Pomerleau-Pelletier saw him emerge from the inn amid the chaos, with a horrified look on his face.

"I looked at him and I didn't say a word or anything because he looked very, very, very shaken up,'' said Pomerleau-Pelletier, a barmaid and receptionist at the century-old l'Eau Berge inn.

"He didn't do anything, but his face was pretty descriptive.

"It said everything.''

Harding stayed at that inn one or two nights per week. The resident of Farnham, Que., frequently passed through town because of his work.

A column in Montreal La Presse on Friday describes Harding as a second-generation railman whose father was a train engineer, as are two of his brothers.

It quotes an acquaintance describing him as a conscientious worker who so badly wanted to drive trains that when Canadian Pacific sold off the eastern Quebec line, he quit the bigger company rather than face a future in which he feared he'd be kept off the tracks.

He is now a pivotal player in investigations by police, the federal Transportation Safety Board, potential lawsuits, and untold insurance claims.

But one federal official warned Friday against singling out any individuals.

Without mentioning Harding, the head of the TSB said the organization always operates under the assumption that, on tragedies like these, a series of events were at play.

"It never comes down to one individual," said chair Wendy Tadros.

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