WATCH: Neighbours and colleagues talk about Tom Harding, the train engineer currently at the centre of the Lac-Megantic train explosion investigation
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – His face gripped with terror, the train driver sprang out of bed at the inn where he’d retired for the night and raced to the scene of an impending catastrophe in the town that served as his second home.
Several people in Lac-Megantic painted a portrait Thursday of the friendly Anglo railman who enjoyed chatting with locals in his accented French during his regular stopovers in the community.
The train driver, Tom Harding, now finds himself at the centre of the investigation into a Quebec derailment disaster feared to have killed 50 people.
His boss has said he could face criminal charges.
An employee at the inn where Harding slept one or two nights per week says she specifically remembers the horrified expression on his face when he first saw the inferno engulfing the town.
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, but doesn’t remember hearing him utter a word.
She thinks she was looking into his eyes the instant he realized his unmanned, crude-oil-filled train had just slammed into the downtown core.
“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.”
She almost immediately lost track of him as people ran for their lives through the streets.
The company had initially described Harding as a hero for apparently rushing to the scene where he managed to pull some of the explosive, untouched rail cars away from the flames.
But Ed Burkhardt, the chairman of the rail company, has apparently changed his view of Harding’s actions that night. He has said his employee was suspended without pay amid concerns he might not have properly applied the brakes on the train.
A taxi driver recalled something unusual when he saw Harding earlier that night.
The cabbie met Harding at the spot where he parked the train Friday night. 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 so that he recalled that oil droplets from the locomotive exhaust landed 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.
Earlier reports have said Harding is on sick leave, although the company boss said he’s been suspended. Attempts to reconcile that discrepancy received no response from the company Thursday.
Police have released the first name of a victim: 93-year-old Elianne Parenteau. Most of the bodies have not been found or identified.
Much of the local anger has been directed at the company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who received applause from residents as she visited the town Thursday for a second time, called MMA’s handling of the crisis “deplorable.” The local mayor says she’s angry at the company boss for his response to the crisis.
Watch: Marois slams railway boss during Lac-Megantic visit
With most residents being allowed to return home, only about 10 per cent of the 2,000 who were evacuated will still be shut out of their houses as of the weekend.
Details are slowly emerging about the man at the centre of the incident.
Turcotte has transported Harding on the $20 cab rides from the train to the inn once or twice a week for the last four months and says they’ve chatted together about their families.
He describes Harding as a really nice guy.
“(Just) imagine it’s not his fault. In the meantime, he needs support – he doesn’t need harassment,” Turcotte said in an interview at his home outside of Lac-Megantic.
“And if it’s his fault, listen, he will pay for it, for sure.”
Several locals have fond recollections of their dealings with Harding.
Another inn employee called him a “sweet” person with lots of friends in his now-devastated second hometown.
Caroline Langlois, who has known Harding for two-and-a-half years, considers him a friend.
“I really feel a lot of his pain,” said the barmaid, who sees him as such a close friend that she would share very little information about him.
She said she has even defended him when hearing people utter “abominations” about him.
“Because I know he’s truly a good person.”
Harding has yet to comment publicly on the disaster.
He has not surfaced since returning to his home in the Quebec town of Farnham, east of Montreal, following a meeting with police.
On Thursday, there were no signs of Harding at his home. Officials from the Transportation Safety Board were seen at the Farnham offices of the MMA railway.
Canadian National confirmed Thursday that Harding was involved in a minor accident last August at one of their yards in the Quebec city of St-Hyacinthe.
Spokesman Mark Hallman refused to provide any other details about the incident, nor would he say what prompted CN to discuss Harding’s record.
“CN took appropriate steps following the accident and has no further comment,” he said.
A regular at l’Eau Berge’s pub said that Harding, like many of the drivers who stayed at the inn, would frequently complain about mechanical problems on the locomotives – including minor fires.
The breakdowns would often delay the drivers and they would show up late at the inn, Francois Durand said.
He said he and Harding have shared many laughs at the bar, which he described as a positive atmosphere that includes railmen, staff and locals.
“We chatted about all sorts of things – crap about life, women,” Durand said about his exchanges with Harding, whom he’s known for about two years.
Another regular said he’s always thought of Harding as a good worker and a responsible guy.
Harding didn’t drink much either, Gilles Fluet said, except for the occasional beer.
“I never saw this guy in an inebriated state,” Fluet said.
“I have more confidence in this guy than his employer.”
With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Graham Hughes