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-Mégantic painted a portrait Thursday of the friendly anglophone 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Harding.
Ms. 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 Ms. 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 quickly lost track of him as people ran for their lives through the streets.
The company had initially described Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Details are slowly emerging about the man at the centre of the incident.
Taxi driver Andre Turcotte has transported Mr. 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 Mr. Harding as a really nice guy.
“[Just] imagine it’s not his fault. In the meantime, he needs support – he doesn’t need harassment,” Mr. Turcotte said in an interview at his home outside of Lac-Mégantic.
“And if it’s his fault, listen, he will pay for it, for sure.”
Several locals have fond recollections of their dealings with Mr. Harding.
Another inn employee called him a “sweet” person with lots of friends in his now-devastated second hometown.
Caroline Langlois, who has known Mr. Harding for 2 1/2 years, considers him a friend.
“I really feel a lot of his pain,” said the barmaid.
She said she has even defended him when hearing people utter “abominations” about him. “Because I know he’s truly a good person.”
Mr. 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, after a meeting with police.
On Thursday, there were no signs of Mr. Harding at his home. Officials from the Transportation Safety Board were seen at the Farnham offices of the MM&A railway.
Another regular said he’s always thought of Mr. Harding as a good worker and a responsible guy.
Mr. Harding didn’t drink much either, Gilles Fluet said, except for the occasional beer.
“I never saw this guy in an inebriated state,” Mr. Fluet said. “I have more confidence in this guy than his employer.”