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Transcripts: What the train engineer and the railway company talked about as Lac-Mégantic burned

The engineer whose train derailed in Lac-Mégantic last year did not believe it was the source of the disaster until a dispatcher gave him the news more than two hours after the crash, transcripts from that night suggest.

The Globe and Mail obtained the text of a series of conversations that took place on the night of the accident between Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway engineer Tom Harding and someone identified only as RJ at company offices.

The full transcript, which is based on these audio recordings of MM&A's rail traffic control communications, provide new insight into Mr. Harding's actions before the derailment and the uncertainty and panic that took hold in the hours after the crash.

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TH: Now you're telling me she caught on fire?

RJ: Yeah, she caught on fire.

Conversation between Harding and company office, 11:59 p.m.

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Forty-seven people were killed and dozens of buildings destroyed after the train came loose from its brakes and derailed on July 6, 2013, exploding and spewing a wave of burning oil into the centre of town. The Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major transportation accidents, concluded this week that multiple factors contributed to the deadly accident, including a failure to set enough hand brakes, a weak "safety culture" at MM&A and poor regulation by Transport Canada.

Among the revelations from the radio traffic control transcripts are signs that Mr. Harding was unaware that the fire raging outside his hotel room on July 6 was linked to the train he had parked 11.6 kilometres away in Nantes, Que.

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TH: Yard is gone. Flames, RJ, are 200 feet high. It's incredible, you can't believe it here. From the river right to the station …

RJ: What the fuck happened?

TH: I don't know, I don't know, but everything, everything. … I woke up 20 minutes ago, evacuate, evacuate, evacuate right away.

Conversation between Harding and company office, 1:47 a.m.

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After firefighters extinguished a blaze in the locomotive around midnight, they turned off the engine and the air brakes gradually lost pressure. Not enough hand brakes had been applied and the train came loose and rolled down the tracks to Lac-Mégantic.

Shortly after the crash, Mr. Harding phoned a dispatcher to warn him that there was an emergency in Lac-Mégantic. "Listen, emergency the town of Mégantic is on fire," Mr. Harding said, according to the transcript. "… Everything is on fire, from the church all the way down to the Metro [grocery store], from the river all the way to the railway tracks."

He said he had woken up about 20 minutes earlier to the news that his hotel was being evacuated and expressed shock at the scale of the blaze. During the conversation, the dispatcher asked Mr. Harding if MM&A's train was involved, to which Mr. Harding replied, "No." Mr. Harding added that police had been asking him for more information because they knew he worked for the railway. He also referred to the "loaded train up at Nantes" that he'd parked several hours earlier.

Clearly distressed, the engineer was anxious to know if there were any dangerous goods or tank cars in the rail yard in Lac-Mégantic that might be affected by the fire and did not appear to consider the possibility that his train might have been involved.

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RJ: Okay, but it's worse than that, my friend.

TH: Why?

RJ: It's your train that rolled down.

TH: No.

RJ: Yes, sir.

TH: No, RJ.

RJ: Yes, sir.

TH: Holy fuck.

Conversation between Harding and company office, 3:29 a.m.

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Mr. Harding phoned the dispatcher again at 3:29 a.m., as fires continued to rage near the crash site, and described some of the damage to the rail yard in downtown Lac-Mégantic. "OK, but it's worse than that, my friend," the dispatcher said. "… It's … it's your train that rolled down."

"No," Mr. Harding replied, according to the transcript. "… Holy fuck."

At some point during the night, Mr. Harding helped pull nine tank cars, which had not derailed, away from the crash site in an effort to prevent further devastation, MM&A has said. He did not describe the act in his conversations with the dispatcher, but it's possible he joined the group that was working to retrieve the tank cars after his 3:30 a.m. conversation.

MM&A and three of its employees, including Mr. Harding, were charged earlier this year with criminal negligence in connection with the accident.

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