MONTREAL — Three railway employees arrested in the runaway oil train explosion that killed 47 people were arraigned and released on bail Tuesday. They face criminal negligence charges in the small Quebec town that was devastated by the horrific inferno, which led to calls for making oil trains safer across North America.
The men were arrested late Monday afternoon, about 10 months after more than 60 tankers carrying oil from North Dakota came loose in the middle of the night, sped downhill for nearly seven miles and derailed in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic in eastern Quebec, near the border with Maine. At least five of the tankers exploded, leveling about 30 buildings, including a popular bar that was filled with revelers enjoying a summer Friday night.
Quebec provincial prosecutor’s office laid 47 counts of criminal negligence, one for each person who died, against engineer Thomas Harding, manager of train operations Jean Demaitre, and Richard Labrie, the railway’s traffic controller. Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd., the defunct railway at the heart of the disaster, faces the same charges. Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.
The three men entered the packed courthouse before a crowd of journalists and onlookers, including some residents who had lost family and friends.
No pleas were entered but Thomas Walsh, Harding’s lawyer, said his client will plead not guilty. The defendants were due to return to court in September.
Walsh said he had written to prosecutors several times asking that Harding to be allowed to turn himself in if he was charged. Instead, Walsh said Harding was arrested by a SWAT team that swooped through his home and into his backyard, where he was working on his boat with a son and a friend. Police forced all three to drop to the ground.
“It was a complete piece of theatre that was totally unnecessary,” Walsh told The Associated Press.
Edward Burkhardt, who was chairman of MM&A, declined to comment.
The railroad blamed the engineer for failing to set enough brakes, allowing the train to begin rolling toward the town of 6,000.
Harding had left the train unattended overnight to sleep at an inn shortly before it barreled into Lac-Megantic.
The crash, the worst railway accident in Canada in nearly 150 years, prompted intense public pressure to make oil trains safer. Canada’s transport minister said in April that the type of tankers involved in the disaster must be retired or retrofitted within three years because they are prone to rupturing. The oil industry has rapidly moved to using trains to transport oil in part because of oil booms in North Dakota’s Bakken region and Alberta’s oil sands, and because of a lack of pipelines.
The arrests came just days before the bankrupt railroad’s sale closes.
The $15.85 million sale of MM&A is expected to close on Thursday in the U.S., but there could be a delay of a few days on a parallel proceeding in Canada. Most of the proceeds will be used to repay creditors. Eventually, there will be a settlement fund to compensate victims and repay cleanup costs.
The railroad’s buyer, a subsidiary of New York-based Fortress Investment Group, is changing the railroad’s name to Central Maine and Quebec Railway. The company said it hopes to recapture lost business but has no plans to try to bring back oil shipments.
Yannick Gagne, the owner of the Musi-Cafe, the establishment in the heart of town where many people were incinerated, has promised to make the new cafe a community gathering place as the town tries to move forward.
“You can understand, for me it’s a day full of emotion,” Gagne said.
Karine Blanchette, an employee who lost friends and colleagues, said she’s happy about the charges but nothing can erase the tragedy.
“Finally, there’s justice,” Blanchette said. “But it does not bring back the people we lost.”