LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – A description has emerged of the frantic moment when the train driver at the centre of the Quebec derailment disaster rushed to the fiery scene in the hope of saving lives.
One of the men who risked his life alongside Tom Harding said the railman’s knowledge played a role in removing several oil-filled cars before they, too, could go up in flames in downtown Lac-Megantic.
Serge Morin told The Canadian Press that the group of men were trying to detach a few unscathed wagons from the end of the derailed train when Harding suddenly appeared at their side amid the chaos, wearing a firefighting suit.
He doubts their efforts made a difference in the tragic result: 50 people are feared to have been killed. But he saluted the bravery of the railman in helping steer scorching-hot tankers from the area.
“He really helped us,” Morin, who didn’t catch Harding’s name that night and only learned later that he was the train’s driver, said in an interview Friday.
Morin credited Harding with guiding the group though the process of depressurizing the train’s airbrakes, which enabled them to move some of the cars to safety.
Harding’s role is a central question in ongoing investigations into the tragedy; his own company called him a hero one day, then announced the next that he had been suspended amid concerns about his role in the disaster.
Morin, who has some experience fighting fires at the nearby plant where he works, said the group towed a total of nine cars about 500 metres from the blaze using the combined horsepower of a loader and a mobile rail-car mover.
He had brought the rail-car mover from his factory. Another local, Pascal Lafontaine, overheard their conversations on a radio and offered up the services of a loader from his family’s excavation business.
But after the crew had moved the first string of five tankers, the rail-car mover was unable to find a level crossing to re-enter the tracks.
And the loader, Morin said, was not equipped with a tool designed to deactivate the wagons’ airbrakes.
That’s around the time Harding appeared.
He came wearing a firesuit, helmet and visor he had borrowed from the municipal fire department.
Morin said he was surprised to see a railway worker arrive at their side amid the chaos and intense heat around them.
Harding, Morin added, told them to break the tubing on the wagons with the loader to release the air. The team pulled the remaining four tankers, two at a time, away from the blaze with the loader.
“What is certain is that he knew this stuff and, yes, at first glance, he was needed because we wouldn’t have been able to move (the tankers) with the loader,” said Morin, who, looking back, doesn’t think their efforts changed much.
“Everything we did there that night didn’t change anything – 50 people disappeared. And whether (Harding) helped us or not, there would have still been 50.”
He said Lafontaine rushed to help even though he already knew his wife, brother and sister-in-law had been inside Le Musi-Cafe bar, close to the epicentre of the crash.
Lafontaine, Morin added, only told him about his missing loved ones after they’d moved the wagons.
He described all the men as nervous. After one big, terrifying blast, they all questioned whether they should stick around.
“At that moment we asked each other, ‘Do we continue?’ ”
After a 15-second pause, they had made their decision, he added.
“We said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Morin believes that particular explosion around 4 a.m. was set off by propane tanks behind a nearby crematorium.
Throughout the night, the workers also had to contend with a loud, eerie, kettle-like whistle that Morin thinks came from the burning rail tankers as they cracked under the blistering heat.
When they first got to work, Morin said a group of firefighters blasted the flames with their hoses to set up a line of defence.
The task lasted from shortly after the derailment, around 1:30 a.m., until roughly 7 a.m. Morin said he only exchanged a few words with Harding while he worked with him.
Harding had completed his shift earlier a few hours earlier and left the train unattended to sleep at a local inn.
A worker at the inn said she saw him rush out of the building with a look of horror on his face after the initial explosion.
The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has said Harding stated he’d shut down 11 handbrakes on the train, but that his claim had been called into question.
Ed Burkhardt initially told reporters that Harding had been suspended without pay, but an official at the company said Friday that their employee was still receiving his paycheque.
Burkhardt said Harding is under police watch, that criminal charges are now being considered in the case, and Harding will likely never work for MMA again.
Several people in Lac-Megantic have described Harding as a friendly guy who enjoyed chatting with locals during his regular stopovers in town.
They have also shared some details about Harding’s whereabouts on that night.
A taxi driver recalled something unusual when he picked up Harding from work.
The cabbie met Harding at the spot where he parked the train in Nantes, Que., uphill from Lac-Megantic. 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 emitting more smoke than usual. He recalled that oil droplets from the 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.
Harding stayed at that inn one or two nights per week. The resident of Farnham, Que., frequently passed through town because of his work.
A column in Montreal La Presse on Friday describes Harding as a second-generation railman whose father was a train engineer, as are two of his brothers.
It quotes an acquaintance describing him as a conscientious worker who so badly wanted to drive trains that when Canadian Pacific sold off the eastern Quebec line, he quit the bigger company rather than face a future in which he feared he’d be kept off the tracks.
Harding is now a pivotal player in investigations by police, the federal Transportation Safety Board, potential lawsuits, and untold insurance claims.
The president of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has described Harding as a hero for helping the men tow the tankers to safety.
But the company later said it suspended him over concerns he might not have properly applied the brakes on the train – which rumbled unmanned into the heart of Lac-Megantic.
Company chairman Ed Burkhardt has said police have talked about the possibility of criminal charges.
But one federal official warned Friday against singling out any individuals.
Without mentioning Harding, the head of the TSB said the organization always operates under the assumption that, on tragedies like these, a series of events were at play.
“It never comes down to one individual,” said chair Wendy Tadros.
© 2013 The Associated Press