(Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada – July 14, 2013)
As the Chief Executive Officer of the Rail World short and regional railroad conglomerate faced a public relations nightmare as he attempted to soothe relations with both government and the public in regard to the derailment of a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway freight train loaded with North Dakota oil headed for a New Brunswick refinery that derailed and incinerated the picturesque Quebec tourist and lake country community of Lac-Megantic, QU, early last Saturday, where the death toll is now 50, investigative journalists back in the USA were uncovering records of massive derailments on American rail properties he oversaw prior to his current corporate administration.
Rail World CEO Ed Burkhardt finally got to the site of the horrible tragedy, where part of a 73-car, five-locomotive freight train, supposedly secured for the night at the community of Nantes, QU, seven miles uphill from Lac-Megantic, somehow became uncoupled from the rest of the train and rolled downhill, where many of the cars filled with crude oil derailed and at least five exploded, plunging the community of 6,000’s entertainment district into an inferno, killing at least 50 people at the popular attraction’s peak time of activity, Wednesday, after coordinating initial recovery efforts from Rail World’s suburban Chicago headquarters. Authorities fear many of the victims’ bodies will never be recovered or positively identified due to the intensity of what became a funeral pyre.
According to CNN, Burkhardt was laying blame either at the feet of his lone employee on the train, the locomotive engineer (MM&A RY trains obviously operate with but a single employee on board, doing the jobs that once required a crew of six), who said he had set 11 hand brakes to secure the train before he retired to a local hotel for the night, or with the volunteer fire department in Nantes, where, although the local fire chief confirmed that his firefighters had responded to and extinguished a fire reported before midnight Friday in one of the idling locomotives, denied that his forces had shut down the quintet of locomotives which were maintaining air brake pressure to further secure the unmanned, idling train.
As Burkhardt cast doubt upon the actions of his engineer, whom he said “had a completely clear safety record up until Saturday,” the crowd of residents, many of whom had lost friends, relatives and property in the accident, were deriding him with insults and accusations. “They should put that guy in prison,” charged Pierre L’Heureux, who told CNN he knew at least half of the dead or still missing. “He’s a murderer!”
Quebec police spokesperson Benoit Richard affirmed on Wednesday that “We are no longer treating this as just an accident,” but rather, in the words of Quebec Provincial Police Captain Michel Forget, a “criminal act.” But Forget also cautioned speculators against assessing blame until the investigation reveals exactly what occurred.
And as the CEO sought a scapegoat in the locomotive engineer, saying that he had been suspended without pay and faced a criminal investigation by Canadian law enforcement authorities, someone was failing to do the math on the train’s consist and the engineer’s claims. According to CNN researchers, the five locomotives and nine cars directly behind them – a total of 14 rail units, which would allegedly have had 11 hand brakes set thereupon, had the remaining portion of the train break away from its coupling to the other 14 allegedly secured units.
Meanwhile, the damages resultant from the accident were beginning to surface. “We think we have plenty of responsibility,” admitted Burkhardt, but questioned whether the MM&A or Rail World bore “total responsibility” or not, saying much is “yet to be determined.”
But in Wisconsin, where Burkhardt had been the boss of the Wisconsin Central Railroad from 1987 until his removal in a corporate power struggle in 1999, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was digging into its own news records in regard to a few incidents that occurred on the WC during Burkhardt’s tenure there.
In 1996, Burkhardt’s Wisconsin Central had suffered a massive derailment of rail cars loaded with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the Wisconsin community of Weyauwega, setting off explosions and fires that burned for two weeks and forcing the evacuation of 3,000 residents. The accident, which the National Transportation Safety Board charged was caused by a broken switch, resultant from improper track maintenance, cost the WC and its insurers $26 million in damages.
And in 1997, a WC derailment near a Fon du Lac factory resulted in the deaths of two people. There were no deaths suffered in the 1996 incident.
Returning to the catastrophe in Canada, news reports said that Quebec Premier Pauline Marois promised the provincial government would provide $25 million in immediate emergency assistance to residents and businesses in Lac-Megantic, and would follow that up with an identical second sum to assist with reconstruction efforts as the town rebuilds into the tourist attraction it had been prior to the tragedy. Lac-Megantic Mayor Collette Roy-Laroche noted that the community accommodates 300,000 visitors during the May-to-October peak tourism season.