The engineer of the train that crashed into Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 50 people, did not return to check on a fire in one of the locomotives less than two hours earlier after he was told everything was under control, his lawyer says.
Less than an hour after local firefighters extinguished the flames, the unmanned train began rolling toward Lac-Mégantic. It picked up speed before it jumped the track early on July 6, its load of 72 tankers of crude oil exploding into an inferno that flattened 40 buildings in the downtown core.
Lawyer Thomas Walsh said Tuesday that he believes his client spoke with dispatchers from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway after the initial locomotive fire broke out. Asked why Tom Harding did not return to check on the train after the fire, Mr. Walsh said, "My understanding was that he was told everything was under control."
MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt told reporters last week that he believes the engineer failed to apply enough of the train's manual brakes to ensure it would stay in place. Mr. Walsh said he would not comment on the application of the handbrakes because police and the Transportation Safety Board are still investigating.
"I don't really want to take a position right now because I want to wait and see what the results of the inquiry are," Mr. Walsh said.
He said Mr. Harding was in contact with the company about the fire before the crash but was told the situation was not serious. "I think he phoned on several occasions – phoned or was phoned by – [the dispatchers] on several occasions," he said.
He added that he believes MM&A has a worker on the night shift in Farnham, Que., and another in the United States to work with staff on the rail line, "and I think he [Mr. Harding] was in touch with both of them."
Mr. Walsh said it is unclear whether the engineer could have prevented the tragedy. "Let's say that Harding had come back at a certain stage of the game, would it have made any difference? We don't know," he said.
Representatives from MM&A could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But a source with knowledge of the company's procedures said Tuesday that all dispatcher calls are recorded and that Quebec's provincial police had collected the recordings shortly after the crash. The Sûreté du Québec has said it is interviewing all company employees along the rail line between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic.
Police interviewed Mr. Harding for about 10 hours on the weekend of the crash, Mr. Walsh said, and Mr. Harding also met with officials from the Transportation Safety Board.
After the derailment, Mr. Harding was at his mother's home in Farnham, a drive of about 2 1/2 hours from Lac-Mégantic. Mr. Walsh said his client has co-operated with investigators, but has left Farnham to get away from the extensive media attention. "He's not shirking his responsibilities. It's just that his physical presence I don't think is doing anybody any good, particularly not him. So I told him to scram and you know, get out of the limelight," he said.
He added that he hopes to arrange psychological support for his client, who remains deeply distressed by the incident.
"It's just devastating," Mr. Walsh said of the crash in Lac-Mégantic. "And I think the more closely you're involved in it, whether on a fault or no-fault [basis], it doesn't really matter…. Walking out of an accident where you didn't do anything wrong doesn't make you feel any better."
Asked on Tuesday if she felt sympathy for Mr. Harding, Lac-Mégantic mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she could not comment directly. But she added the accident will lead to an investigation by the municipal government "or legal moves of consequence."
Concerns about the rail safety in Quebec have been growing since the derailment in Lac-Mégantic.
Several mayors in Quebec's Eastern Townships met Tuesday to demand better safety measures for trains that pass through their municipalities. A senior local official was sent to represent the Lac-Mégantic area at meetings with the other mayors.
With a report from Justin Giovannetti