There was an audible gasp in a Sherbrooke, Quebec courtroom last Friday after a jury acquitted the three Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway employees charged with criminal negligence after a runaway oil train incinerated downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.
After the verdict was released, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie expressed his sympathy for the town, and several local residents returned the favour, while pinning responsibility for the derailment and fire on the now-defunct company.
“Locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, were all charged after the derailment of a runaway fuel train early on July 6, 2013,” CBC recalls. “Several tankers carrying highly volatile crude oil exploded, turning downtown Lac-Mégantic into an inferno and killing 47 people.”
On Friday, Harding was too overcome by emotion to speak to media. Labrie, speaking through tears, “said his thoughts were always with and continue to be with the community of Lac-Mégantic,” CBC reports.
“I would like to say the people of Lac-Mégantic, what they went through, they showed a huge amount of courage,” he said.
The prosecution tried to argue that the three accused shared responsibility for the disaster. But during a trial that began last September, “the defence for Harding countered that substandard safety practices and one-person train crews at MMA led to a perfect storm that culminated in the disaster,” CBC recalls. Jurors heard from other former MMA employees who “described a work environment they said had little regard for safety standards and no budget for training.”
The verdict got a thumbs-up from several Lac-Mégantic residents, including Mayor Julie Morin. “The company, MMA, had a big role to play in this,” she told CBC. “It’s impossible that three men alone created what happened to us.”
Strangely nuanced support for that view also came from an unexpected source, when retired MMA Chair Edward Burkhardt told Radio-Canada he was happy to see his three ex-employees acquitted.
“I think the jury made the right decision,” he said in a phone interview from Chicago. “If we were to put in prison everyone who made mistakes in life, then I think we would all already be there. That’s why the definition of criminal negligence has to be so specific.”
That was a big shift from his public allegation in 2013 that Harding hadn’t done his job on the night of the derailment. “Burkhardt’s frequently blunt remarks, often lacking public relations massaging and sentimentalism, made him public enemy No. 1 last summer in Lac-Mégantic,” The Canadian Press recalled in December 2013. “His brief stop in the town in the aftermath is perhaps best remembered for his tumultuous news conference, during which he was heckled by irate locals.”
At the time, Burkhardt said townspeople “had every reason to be very upset with what had occurred.” But “what they didn’t know was that I was equally upset and I was also a victim of this whole thing,” after losing “a big pile of money” as MMA’s biggest shareholder.
“It’s reduced me from being a fairly well-off guy to one that’s just getting by,” he told CBC. “But OK, that’s what happens.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, “Burkhardt said he had tried to impose stricter safety regulations and policies at the company,” CBC now recalls, but “the investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada ruled otherwise. The report from the TSB, which was released in 2014, said that MMA had ‘weak safety culture.’” Burkhardt now maintains that “the laws in place have to be enforced and followed to the letter” to prevent future tragedies.
After the verdict, CBC posted a photo of Labrie hugging Jean Clusiault, whose daughter Kathy died in the fire. “I felt relieved because these are not the right people who should be there,” Clusiault said. “These are human beings with families who worked hard all their lives. These aren’t killers,” but “we treated them like killers.”
“No one thought they were the people to blame in this catastrophe,” agreed Jean St. Pierre, the co-owner of Lac-Mégantic’s Hotel Motel Le Château. “For sure there was negligence. But there were so many people higher than them who were negligent.”
“They worked for an irresponsible company that made them work at high risk,” said Yvon Rosa, who survived the explosion. “And when they pulled the elastic band, it broke. And, unfortunately, it broke in Lac-Mégantic.”
MMA, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, will now face charges of criminal negligence causing death.