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Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., arrives in Lac-Mégantic, Que., and addresses questions from the media on July 9, 2013 before leaving with investigators.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The U.S. railway executive at the centre of Canada's most devastating derailment in decades is casting partial blame on a company employee, saying he believes the engineer failed to apply some of the hand brakes in the hours before the unmanned freight train barrelled into Lac-Mégantic and exploded.

The head of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, who said the engineer had been suspended, also called for a regulatory change that would prohibit trains from being parked overnight without supervision. He said his company will halt the practice after Saturday's crash, which is now the subject of a criminal investigation.

Edward Burkhardt made his first public appearance in the small Quebec town on Wednesday, an emotional and at times bitter day when police confirmed what many residents already feared: Most of the 50 to 60 people considered missing after the crash are likely dead.

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In an impromptu press conference, Mr. Burkhardt took a barrage of questions from reporters for more than half an hour as a small group of angry residents gathered nearby to hurl insults. It was an extraordinary and unscripted performance that ended abruptly when police interrupted Mr. Burkhardt and took him for questioning. A police officer later said he had made the chairman promise "not to go too far."

The 72-car train belonging to Mr. Burkhardt's company was filled with crude oil when it rolled 9.7 kilometres down the tracks into Lac-Mégantic early Saturday morning. The derailment was followed by a series of massive explosions that laid waste to a section of the community's downtown.

The train's engineer has been identified as Tom Harding, of Farnham, Que. The Globe and Mail has been unable to reach him for comment. Mr. Harding has not been charged with a crime, nor has the Transportation and Safety Board assigned any blame in its investigation.

The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, say the town's centre is the site of a criminal investigation. No charges have been laid, but police said earlier this week that they were interviewing all company employees working along the route the train took before the crash.

Mr. Burkhardt said the fact that the train ran away "would indicate that the hand brakes on the balance of the train were not properly applied." He added: "It was our employee that was responsible for setting an adequate number of hand brakes on this train."

Mr. Burkhardt said the employee has been suspended without pay and is unlikely to work for the company again.

Trains are equipped with air brakes, which work using pressurized air that affects the brakes on each car and require the engine to be running in order to work. They also have hand brakes that are more stable. Those are applied manually and require an engineer to climb on multiple tank cars and twist a large handle that looks like a steering wheel to secure the train.

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Mr. Burkhardt said he would do whatever he could to help the community. "The devastation here is absolutely awful. The company is going to respond to this as best it can."

He was accompanied by the company's president, Robert Grindrod, and Mr. Grindrod's assistant, who tried to intervene as police escorted Mr. Burkhardt to a waiting car. "I need to tell him that under advice of his lawyer he can't answer any questions from police," the assistant said.

Mr. Burkhardt said the company's engineer had told others – who subsequently informed Mr. Burkhardt – that he set 11 handbrakes on the train before leaving it about 10 kilometres uphill from Lac-Mégantic and retiring to a hotel for the night.

An initial inspection by the company suggested the hand brakes were applied on all five of the train's locomotives, Mr. Burkhardt said, but he added that it was difficult to imagine they were applied on the train's tank cars. "As a matter of fact, I'll say they weren't."

Some residents were hostile to Mr. Burkhardt while others stood silent but angry, listening to the news conference on a loudspeaker.

"He's getting me mad," said Claude Charron, a 66-year-old pharmacist whose home was next to the derailment site. "I think people are entitled to protest these words he's saying."

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