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First responders fight burning trains after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., early July 6, 2013.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

The chairman of a rail company at the centre of a devastating blast is accusing firefighters of shutting down the locomotive hours before it rolled into Lac-Mégantic.

Edward Burkhardt, head of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, has been under pressure to explain how an unmanned freight train carrying combustible cargo careened down the track into the small Quebec town and exploded.

Mr. Burkhardt said he believes the train's air brakes were released because firefighters turned off the engine when they extinguished a fire a few hours before the blast.

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"They went out there by themselves, shut the engine off, doused the fire. A very small fire," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday from Chicago.

His comments drew swift reaction from a local fire chief, who rebuffed Mr. Burkhardt's account and promised to "clear this all up in the next few days."

Patrick Lambert, the chief, said he could not speak in detail about the crash because of the continuing investigation.

While Mr. Burkhardt faulted firefighters for failing to rouse the train's engineer after he had parked the train and went to a local hotel, another company representative said the firefighters did contact an MMA dispatcher to report the problem.

Yves Bourdon, who sits on the railway's board of directors, said firefighters called a dispatcher based in Farnham, Que., to alert him of the trouble when the fire broke out at about 11:30 p.m. The dispatcher then phoned a track-repair worker who went to the scene, Mr. Bourdon said.

The track worker, whom Mr. Bourdon declined to name, travelled to the tracks in Nantes, but was not familiar with how locomotives work and would not have known how to start the engine again if it was shut off.

He said the track worker phoned the dispatcher back before he left, "and then he went home."

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"After the firefighters left, he looked around and he left. He advised the dispatcher and that was the end of it, for him anyway," Mr. Bourdon said. "He was the last person to see the train."

He said the dispatcher had been contacted by the Sûreté du Québec. A spokesman from the police force would not confirm it had interviewed the dispatcher specifically, but said investigators are speaking to all MMA employees who work along the route from where the train started in Farnham to the site of the crash.

Lac-Mégantic mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she has had a meeting with MMA managers. "It was a satisfactory meeting, but this being an initial occasion, we didn't go into details," she said, saying there would be more contacts with the company.

Mr. Lambert, the fire chief, questioned Mr. Burkhardt's knowledge of the fatal night.

"He can come down here and we'll discuss the difference between chairs and Eskimos, I don't think he knows the difference."

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