Jean Demaitre leaves the court house after his hearing in
Lac Megantic. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger
Three railway workers charged with criminal negligence in
a Canadian train disaster that killed 47 people in
Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July have been released on bail after
a brief court appearance.
Quebec police arrested Thomas Harding, the engineer and train
driver, and two other train workers - Jean Demaitre and
Richard Labrie - on Monday. They were each charged with 47
counts of criminal negligence causing death.
The same charges were made against the railway company,
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd (MMA), which filed
for bankruptcy protection last year. No individual executives
The three accused were escorted to the court in handcuffs in
the tiny town of Lac-Megantic, where the train carrying oil
from the Bakken oil fields derailed and exploded on July 6,
2013. The fire engulfed a busy night club and flattened much
of the town's center.
Residents, including some who lost family members in the
disaster, stood and watched quietly as the men were paraded
past news cameras. Some 30 people entered the court room.
The case will resume on September 11 when the suspects enter
their pleas. The maximum penalty is life in prison, although
experts say much shorter sentences are likely.
Lawyer Thomas Walsh said his client Harding, who has been at
the center of the investigation, planned to plead not guilty
to the charges and ask for a trial by jury.
Walsh criticised Quebec police for their commando-style
arrest of Harding on Monday in his back yard, swooping in
with what he described as a SWAT squad and sirens at full
volume. Harding has cooperated fully with police and was
willing to turn himself in voluntarily if and when charges
were laid, he said.
"It was like trying to kill a fly with a cannon. It wasn't
necessary," he said.
Although there were no charges against Ed Burkhardt, the
chief executive officer of MMA, the accusations against the
company as a whole signaled that the prosecutor could
eventually target senior management for blame, said Gilles
LeVasseur, a professor of business law at the University of
That could take longer because Burkhardt resides in the
United States. The prosecutor may also be hoping the three
employees cooperate by providing information on the company's
safety practices in exchange for lighter sentences.
"What you really want is the top executives, to get a message
to management that leadership is responsible for the security
and well-being of society and it's not just downloading it to
lower people in the organization," LeVasseur said.
Harding has been the main focus of the probe into the
disaster, one of several recent accidents involving oil
transport by rail that have sparked a regulatory crackdown on
the industry in Canada and the United States.
He was the single engineer on the train, which he had parked
for the night on a main line, uphill from the small town. At
some point in the evening, firefighters were called in to put
out a small fire in the train's engine.
The train later broke loose and careened down into the town
where it leapt off the tracks and exploded.
The railway initially blamed the catastrophe on the failure
of the train's pneumatic airbrakes after the engine fire.
Burkhardt later said Harding did not apply an adequate number
of handbrakes to hold the train in place.
Labrie was a traffic controller and Demaitre was a director
of operations at MMA.
A website created to raise funds for Harding's defense
describes him as having spent 33 years working on the
railroad, following in his father's footsteps.
"Tom Jr. comes from a family that has a lot of heart and
soul," the site says. "Megantic has wounded him deeply. He
will never be the same man."