LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – The head of the railway whose runaway tanker train obliterated a chunk of the core of picturesque Lac-Megantic, Que., walked into the lion’s den today.
Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., arrived in Montreal late Tuesday afternoon and headed to Sherbrooke, near the devastated town, after being pursued to his car by a throng of reporters.
Burkhardt said he hadn’t gone to the stricken community before because company representatives, including president Robert Grindrod, were already there.
READ MORE: Quebec train disaster zone a ‘crime scene’
In earlier media interviews, the Illinois-based Burkhardt had said he figured he’d have to wear a bullet-proof vest to the town.
In Lac-Megantic, Grindrod attributed that evaluation to the fact that Burkhardt “has a different sense of humour at some times” and didn’t really expect to be shot despite the outrage in the town.
“What he was really saying when he said that, his real intent was that he was going to face very stiff questioning and he expected a lot of byplay with the citizens. He expected to have to answer a lot of very tough questions. He’s not expecting bullets flying or anything like that.
“He’s coming here to talk to the people and express his sympathies as well as ours and see what we can do to help,” said Grindrod.
Grindrod said he had met with some citizens informally already but has been mainly preoccupied with the cleanup.
He said he was “devastated” by the incident.
“I’m devastated for the damage, I’m devastated for the loss of life and injuries and everything else that’s happened,” he said.
Asked Tuesday about possible compensation or changes to policy, Grindrod said no decision will be made on changing company practices until the investigation is complete.
Grindrod also said the railway will apparently be contributing to a fund to help victims that will also see money from the various levels of government.
Compensation could end up being a thorny issue as threats of lawsuits have surfaced and finger-pointing has gone on between the railway and the fire department in nearby Nantes, Que., over possible causes for the derailment.
While an environmental cleanup is already underway, removal of damaged rail cars is not expected to start until at least the weekend, said Grindrod.
Gallery: Dramatic photos from the ‘red zone’ in Lac-Megantic
The company’s own investigation and the next phase of the cleanup can only start after police and the Transportation Safety Board have finished their work, he said.
Grindrod acknowledged the company likely shares some of the blame for the catastrophe.
“But we can’t say how much blame. Typically major events like this are a combination of factors and we don’t know what all the factors are yet.”
He said there was nothing unusual about having a train sitting unattended as it was when a small fire broke out requiring the intervention of the Nantes fire department. The derailment in Lac-Megantic happened shortly afterward.
Burkhardt, who initially did not stop to speak to media at the airport in Montreal, relented briefly and attributed the disaster to a combination of circumstances, including the actions of the Nantes firefighters.
“The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel and taken him to the scene with them,” he told reporters 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.”
The Nantes fire chief has insisted he and his men followed procedure set down by the railway itself.
Burkhardt arrives amid mounting criticism and a rising death toll from the horrific explosion and fire in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
So far grim-faced Quebec provincial police have confirmed 15 deaths and said that at least 35 people remain missing.
The train’s lost oil cargo has polluted the nearby Chaudiere River, where about 100,000 litres of fuel have spilled – although authorities are confident that the damage can be contained.
Townsfolk have expressed anger toward the railway and said they felt unsafe having trains roll through the community.
On Saturday, their worst fears came true.
It all began when firefighters in Nantes responded to a fire in an engine of a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train that was sitting idle for the night on a stretch of track while its engineer caught some shuteye in a nearby hotel.
The engine, which was towing a series of tanker cars laden with oil, was shut down while the fire was extinguished. One theory advanced by the company is that this caused the brakes to loosen.
Shortly after 1 a.m., part of the train careened down a hill into Lac-Megantic and derailed, exploding into a wall of flame and fireballs which sent residents running for their lives and levelling a number of residential and commercial buildings.
About 1,800 people were forced from their homes. On Tuesday, officials declared some areas safe and Quebec provincial police began to allow some people to return to their dwellings.
As the recovery of bodies continues with the deployment of 200 provincial police into the town, investigations unfold on two fronts.
Quebec provincial police Insp. Michel Forget said much of the downtown core is being treated as a crime scene but wouldn’t comment on any potential evidence gathered or whether charges will be laid.
“But there are pieces that might lead us to believe that there are certain facts that might come to criminal acts.”
Officials from the national Transportation Safety Board, which doesn’t lay criminal charges but makes recommendations on safety and procedures, said there were no signals on the tracks to alert rail traffic controllers to a runaway train.
Such systems are in place on busier railway lines such as that linking Montreal and Quebec City but not secondary lines.
Questions were also raised at the news conference about the tanker cars themselves, which are known as DOT-111s and which safety board officials said have a history of puncturing on impact.
“We’ve had a long record of advocating for further improvements to many of these 111s because they’re a very common type of tanker car,” said TSB investigator Donald Ross on Tuesday.
“When you take very large volumes of petroleum products, like in this case, everyone sees the damage that was caused here.”
An outpouring of sympathy continued to rain on the town 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
Pope Francis sent a blessing from the Vatican to those touched by the tragedy. The Queen has already expressed her sympathies.
– With files by Nelson Wyatt in Montreal and Andy Blatchford in Lac-Megantic.
© The Canadian Press, 2013