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A woman walks the tracks in front of the downtown core in Lac Megantic, May 13, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
A woman walks the tracks in front of the downtown core in Lac Megantic, May 13, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

The next chapter of Lac-Mégantic takes place in the courts Add to ...

As victims’ families stood watching mutely from the sidelines, three railway employees were paraded single file in handcuffs into a courtroom Tuesday for the opening of a new, criminal chapter in the catastrophic train derailment that took 47 lives last summer.

There were no boos or jeers from the crowd of dozens of onlookers as Thomas Harding, Jean Demaître and Richard Labrie marched grim-faced into the courthouse to face charges of criminal negligence causing death.

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For townspeople, the proceedings are part catharsis and part relief, another milestone in their struggle to put the disaster behind them. Villagers have attended dozens of funerals and countless counselling sessions. They say justice is another step forward.

Yet several who showed up to catch a glimpse of the suspects said they felt no anger toward them, and questioned why senior railway executives were nowhere in sight. Mr. Harding was the engineer of the train that careened into downtown Lac-Mégantic last July 6 before exploding. Mr. Labrie was the railway traffic controller and Mr. Demaître, the train-operations manager.

“To me they’re scapegoats. I don’t blame them at all,” said Diane Poirier, who lost two nephews in the apocalyptic blaze, which lay waste to the heart of the lakeside town. “We want someone to pay for what happened, but the right people.”

Like many, she raised the question of responsibility of U.S.-based railway executive Ed Burkhardt, who headed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway before the July crash. The prosecution says provincial police have wrapped up their investigation and there isn’t enough evidence to lay charges against anyone else, although the Crown has asked police for additional information.

Diane Bélanger, who lost her 20-year-old daughter, Jo-Annie Lapointe, in the fire, called the three railway employees “pawns” who merely represented “the tip of the iceberg.”

“I’m not angry at these men. I’m more interested in upper management.”

Inside the makeshift courtroom – the original courthouse is off-limits inside the town’s still quarantined “red zone” – the three men sat glumly as a judge read out the conditions of their bail, set at $15,000 each. The hearing was over in less than 10 minutes and the trio was led out again to face a media throng.

Thomas Walsh, the defence lawyer for Mr. Harding, said the Crown’s thesis is that his client failed to apply adequate hand brakes on the unattended train that rolled into town before exploding. “It’s obvious there was insufficiency,” Mr. Walsh said. “But should he [Mr. Harding] have known?”

Criminal negligence, punishable by up to life imprisonment, requires proving someone saw a risk and went ahead with the action anyway, he added.

“There are people much higher up than [Mr. Harding] who knew the state of the rails, the state of those cars, and what those cars really contained,” Mr. Walsh said. “They contained a highly explosive substance that exploded.”

Mr. Walsh, who says Mr. Harding was on workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, complained that his client was subject to a zealous arrest Monday night by Quebec provincial police. An armed SWAT team arrived with sirens blazing and ordered Mr. Harding, along with his son and a friend, to lie face-down on the ground in Mr. Harding's backyard. “It was excessive,” Mr. Walsh said.

The Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway, which has filed for bankruptcy, also faces charges of criminal negligence.

The court appearances unfurled against a backdrop of bustle and renewal in Lac-Mégantic. Only a few hundred steps from the courthouse, workers with circular saws and drills were preparing for the symbolic reconstruction launch on Tuesday of the new Musi-Café, the popular night spot that was at the centre of the conflagration in July.

For owner Yannick Gagné, the rebuilding of his business marks a turning point for the town. From the platform of what will be the floor of his new bar, he can see the distant site of the old Musi-Café, which turned into a tomb for about 30 people on the night of the fire.

“This marks a moment in the renaissance of the town,” Mr. Gagné said in an interview. Residents are being invited to sign a steel beam that will be mounted into the building’s structure. “People died, we think about them every day, but they’ll never be back. We need to return to normal life, and live again.”

The centre of Lac-Mégantic is crawling with cranes, backhoes and cement trucks. A broad shopping street, so new it has no official name yet, already has four new businesses open and expects 13 more this month. It marks the town’s new downtown, and looks like a gleaming new frontier town.

Yet the breeze still carries a whiff of burned oil, a reminder of the millions of litres of crude oil discharged in the derailment.

Pascal Hallé, president of the Lac-Mégantic Chamber of Commerce, is opening a billiards bar on the new street later this week to replace the one that burned to the ground last July. He says the court proceedings will help allow the town turn the page. “To have a dénouement is a relief for us, though it can’t really make us happy – these are individuals, they have families, they’re workers,” he said. “It’s a first step, but there will be many others.”

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