Watch above: Head of railway company heckled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on Wednesday afternoon.
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – The head of an embattled rail company made a contrite visit to a devastated town Wednesday under a rain of insults and a police escort.
The president of the railway at the centre of the Lac-Megantic tragedy admitted that the handbrakes on his company’s train might not have been applied properly.
It was a chaotic scene as residents directed their anger at Ed Burkhardt of Chicago-based Rail World Inc., as he made his visit to the town since the diasater.
WATCH: Tensions high in Lac-Megantic as railway head angers residents
Upon his arrival, more than four days after the fiery crash, Burkhardt was heckled by angry residents of the town where dozens are feared to have died.
One man said he sped over on his bicycle after finding out Burkhardt was there, in order to shout at him. The cyclist delivered a string of swear words.
Provincial police kept one woman at bay as she waved Canadian and American flags while trying to approach Burkhardt, while there were a couple of journalistic shoving matches while media members struggled to get a better shot of Burkhardt.
The railway boss explained that he’d stayed in Chicago to deal with the crisis from his office, where he was better able to communicate with insurers, the media and officials in different places during what he described as 20-hour work days.
READ MORE: Head of railway visits stricken Lac-Megantic
“Am I a compassionate person?” Burkhardt said, during a lengthy press conference where he calmly answered dozens of questions.
“I feel absolutely awful. I am devastated by what’s happened.”
Burkhardt appeared to take responsibility for the disaster, saying the handbrakes might not have been properly applied on the train, a different response from previous days when the company appeared to blame firefighters.
He promised the company’s full assistance. He said it would partner with the Red Cross, insurers and governments to help fund humanitarian aid and reconstruction of homes.
“Our financial resources are going to be devoted to this,” said the veteran railman.
“This comes first.”
For our full coverage of the Lac-Megantic train explosions, click here.
The Quebec government also announced Wednesday an initial $60-million fund to help victims, while declaring that flags across the province would spend a week lowered to half-mast.
Burkhardt’s comments at the news scrum, held in the middle of a residential street, were at times drowned out by hecklers who shouted profanities.
One onlooker with a booming voice demanded that he visit the site that used to be Lac-Megantic’s downtown core, until it was obliterated by Saturday’s deadly derailment.
“It’s a catastrophe!” one man belted out in French as the American businessman answered a question. The heckler then added in English, through a thick French accent: “Go walk there!”
Burkhardt told the news conference that he wanted to visit the disaster zone, but said that he had been denied a permit by authorities because they didn’t want anyone else in the area.
“I have seen the pictures of it,” he said. “It’s absolutely horrible, it looks like a war zone.”
About 60 people are now considered missing in Lac-Megantic’s train derailment, a number that includes the official death toll of 15.
The previous estimate on Tuesday stood at 50. Police said the number is fluctuating and calls about missing people are still coming in.
Before making it to the site, the president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s Chicago-based holding company – Rail World – joked in interviews about the angry response he might get from the locals.
Burkhardt quipped about having to wear a bullet-proof vest when he visited.
Even Wednesday, he again showed flashes of his sense of humour.
A reporter asked how much he was worth, financially. Burkhardt replied: “A whole lot less than I was Saturday.”
The French version of the company’s website remains under construction, and a translated French-language press release was riddled with errors.
The provincial government criticized the company Wednesday.
“It’s a completely deplorable attitude from the company,” said Premier Pauline Marois. “I understand he doesn’t speak French but he could have gotten someone and been there on-site.”
Meanwhile, Marois revealed that her government has taken a step that, in normal times, she conceded would be unusual.
She said the province’s finance minister called the head of the Caisse de depot et placement to inquire about its holdings in the MMA railway.
The giant pension-fund manager is supposed to be a hands-off institution – with political interference to be avoided at risk of damaging Quebecers’ savings with politically motivated investment decisions.
Marois said Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau had called to “seek information” about the Caisse, the $176-billion fund that holds a minority share in the railway.
The Caisse has a 12.77 per cent share in the railway – but that investment is worth almost nothing, estimated at $1,000 at the end of 2012. This is after the Caisse invested $7 million in share capital in 2003, and provided a $7.7 million loan that was fully repaid in 2011.
Financial 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.
The company says that while fighting an earlier blaze the fire department shut off the engine, which affected the brakes. The fire department, however, says it was simply applying proper procedure.
A key potential question is how those two sides communicated before leaving the scene. The train was left unattended, took off, and began rolling downhill with increasing speed on a destructive 20-minute journey to Lac-Megantic.
Burkhardt said the fire department was dealing with a company employee on-site, a track foreman, who was not familiar with diesel engines. Meanwhile, he said, the fire department was not familiar with train safety.
He has said the fire department should have called the company’s engineer, who had completed his shift and went off to sleep at a hotel.
But he added a significant new detail Wednesday: Burkhardt said the train’s handbrakes appeared not to have been properly applied.
Burkhardt said the train engineer had said he’d set all 11 handbrakes, but that the statement had since been called into question.
“I think it’s questionable whether he did,” he said.
Burkhardt said that employee has been suspended pending a police investigation. The company has previously called the train engineer, Quebecer Tom Harding, a hero for apparently rushing to the scene and managing to stop some of the ghost cars.
Burkhardt speculated that the tragedy would lead to changes in industry policy. He said his company has already stopped using one-man crews.
“I really question right now whether that should continue (in the industry) – I don’t think it will,” he said.
“It certainly will not on this railway.”
He became agitated when asked why he hadn’t apologized yet.
Burkhardt 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 one more “abject apology.”
Following the news conference, Burkhardt was taken in an unmarked police car to the provincial police department to meet with investigators.
Police said they have met with 70 witnesses so far, as part of their criminal investigation.