Watch: Railway head shifts blame to engineer in Lac-Megantic disaster on Wednesday afternoon
TORONTO – “I’m devastated by what happened here…Beyond that, I don’t know what to say.”
These words from the head of the rail company under fire for the train disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que. came from his first appearance in the small town, four days after a train derailment that killed at least 20 people and left about 50 missing following massive explosions.
In early interviews, Burkhardt made a joke about having to wear a bullet-proof vest in town – it was an exaggeration, but he was repeatedly cursed at by one man as another was kept back by police, waving flags.
Watch: Railway head heckled in Lac-Megantic on Wednesday afternoon
“I understand why they’re mad. And because I happen to be the chairman of the board of directors of the company, I guess it’s my role to collect all this criticism,” he said.
When asked how much he was worth, he quipped, “A whole lot less than I was Saturday.”
Burkhardt said his company has had minor derailments in the yards and elsewhere but never anything like this “tragic event.”
“We’ve actually, I think, had a reasonable safety record until Saturday. And then we blew it all.”
He considered it “hard to see” how someone could have gotten to the scene to prevent the unmanned train from rolling down the hill, but said every railway he knew in North America parks trains unmanned.
“We’re not going to do that anymore. We were following industry practice,” he said. “Was industry practice adequate? I would say not.”
Burkhardt also said the trains will no longer change crews anywhere in the Megantic area, but will go “right through.”
On the topic of responsibility, he said his employee of many years was responsible for setting an adequate number of handbrakes on the train. He said the train’s handbrakes appeared not to have been properly applied.
“He’s not working now; he’s under investigation,” he said, adding that the employee a “completely clear safety record.”
Burkhardt added the fire department was not familiar with train safety.
He became agitated when asked why he hadn’t apologized. He 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 an “abject apology.”
When asked whether he understood why police were considering criminal charges, he first said he was “not a lawyer” and that he “can’t draw the line between carelessness and criminal negligence.”
He later said: “I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges to this thing, and I think the process they’re going through is to try to investigate this thing to the level where they can decide–based on their standards–whether they think criminal prosecution is necessary.
“If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.”
When asked by a reporter if he could sleep at night, Burkhardt replied: “If you are tired enough, you’ll sleep anywhere.”
Gallery: Dramatic photos from the ‘red zone’ in Lac-Megantic
For our full coverage of the Lac-Megantic train explosions, click here.