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The silent train engineer at the centre of the Lac-Megantic storm

Clean up continues at the scene of the Lac-M├ęgantic, Que. runaway train derailment and explosion on Tuesday July 9, 2013.
Clean up continues at the scene of the Lac-M├ęgantic, Que. runaway train derailment and explosion on Tuesday July 9, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

FARNHAM, Que. – The engineer of the fateful train has faded from sight.

Identified by his own railway and by media reports as the engineer of a train that exploded with deadly consequences in Lac-Megantic, Que., Tom Harding has avoided comment on the incident.

His company has cast him as a hero.

The Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway has been quoted in reports saying that Harding, once alerted to the danger posed by the train as it rolled toward Lac-Megantic, Que., rushed to borrow a tractor from an area forestry company; grabbed a fireman’s suit from an area department; and pushed nine fuel-filled cars weighing 100 tonnes away from explosive danger.

But it was too late to avert disaster as the 72-car train slammed into Lac-Megantic, exploded into balls of skybound flames, and left dozens of people dead or missing.

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A spokesman told Montreal La Presse that Harding was extremely rattled by what happened – “disturbed, and the term is too weak.” MMA spokesman Yves Bourdon said Harding had risked his own life, and braved withering heat, in the hope that he might save others.

Harding was not available Tuesday to discuss his version of what happened. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Quebec provincial police are both investigating the disaster and will inevitably seek Harding’s input into the events.

All that is known about his role is that he worked for a company that transported fuel trains with just one engineer aboard – and, on this train, he was it.

Harding’s shift had ended and he’d retired to sleep at a hotel when disaster struck.

Numerous media converged Tuesday on his home town of Farnham, Que., a picturesque riverside community closer to Montreal than to the disaster site.

Attempts to ring the doorbell at his two-storey stone house proved fruitless.

Some of his friends who came to check on him also left without managing to get in. They declined to speak to a reporter outside the house.

Two of Harding’s neighbours, however, sang his praises.

One man who has lived a few houses away from him for the last dozen years said he knew little more about Harding, other than to exchange pleasantries.

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“He’s an excellent neighbour – a really nice man,” he said, while declining to be identified.

Both he and the other neighbour said they could understand Harding shying away from the spotlight. The other neighbour said the media should leave him alone, given what he’s been through.

“I’m sure he’s in shock too and he needs time too,” the neighbour said.

Notes for Harding, left by reporters, remained in the mailbox uncollected.

However, similar notes left nearby at his mother’s house apparently were picked up as they disappeared over the course of the day.

At Harding’s mother’s place, a big retriever poked its head around some blinds and barked whenever the doorbell rang.

A baby could be heard crying.

Bourdon told different media that Harding was apparently roused from his sleep at a hotel when he heard the explosion.

That’s when he rushed to the scene.

Harding would not have had much time to wake up; leave his hotel for the site; borrow a fire-fighting outfit; and assume command of the tractor.

According to Transportation Safety Board officials, the runaway train started to pull out of Nantes early Saturday at 12:56 a.m.

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Within 18 minutes, they said, it had derailed in Lac-Megantic, with devastating consequences.

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