Railway boss makes apologetic visit to Lac-Mégantic

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – The head of an embattled rail company made a contrite visit to a devastated town Wednesday under a rain of insults and a police escort.

The president of the railway at the centre of the Lac-Megantic tragedy admitted that the handbrakes on his company’s train might not have been applied properly.

It was a chaotic scene as residents directed their anger at Ed Burkhardt of Chicago-based Rail World Inc.

As he arrived, more than four days after the tragedy, Burkhardt was heckled by angry residents of the town where dozens are feared to have died.

One man said he sped over on his bicycle after finding out Burkhardt was there, in order to shout at him. The cyclist repeatedly swore at the head of Rail World Inc.

Provincial police kept another person at bay as they waved Canadian and American flags while trying to approach Burkhardt after a crowded media scrum.

The railway boss explained that he had stayed in Chicago to deal with the crisis in his office, where he was better able to communicate with insurers and officials in different places during what he described as 20-hour work days.

“Am I a compassionate person?” Burkhardt said. “I feel absolutely awful. I am devastated by what’s happened.”

Burkhardt appeared to take responsibility for the disaster, saying the handbrakes might not have been properly applied on the train — which was a more contrite response than that of previous days when the company appeared to blame fire-fighters.

He promised an energetic response to the humanitarian crisis.

He said the company would partner with the Red Cross, insurers and governments to help fund humanitarian aid and reconstruction of homes.

“Our financial resources are going to be devoted to this,” said the veteran railman. “This comes first.”

The Quebec government has announced an initial $60-million fund to help victims in Lac-Megantic, Que.

Premier Pauline Marois said Tuesday that the money will start flowing immediately, with an immediate $1,000 to help people with emergencies. Other provincial funds, and more funding sources from other parties, are expected to join the effort.

The province will also lower flags to half-mast.

About 60 people are now considered missing in Lac-Megantic’s train derailment, a number that includes the official death toll of 15.

The previous estimate on Tuesday stood at 50. Police said the number is fluctuating and calls about missing people are still coming in.

Marois also criticized the railway’s handling of the crisis.

Before making it to the site, the president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s Chicago-based holding company — Rail World — joked in interviews about the angry response he might get from the locals.

Burkhardt quipped about having to wear a bullet-proof vest when he visited.

Even Wednesday, he showed flashes of his sense of humour. A reporter asked how much he was worth, financially.

Burkhardt replied: “A whole lot less than I was Saturday.”

The French version of the company’s website is still under construction, and a translated French-language press release was riddled with errors.

“It’s a completely deplorable attitude from the company,” Marois said Wednesday.

“I understand he doesn’t speak French but he could have gotten someone and been there on-site.”

Marois also revealed that her government has taken a step that, in normal times, she conceded would be unusual.

She said the province’s finance minister called the head of the Caisse de depot et placement to inquire about its holdings in the MMA railway.

The giant pension-fund manager is supposed to be a hands-off institution — with political interference to be avoided at risk of damaging Quebecers’ savings through politically motivated investment decisions.

Marois said Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau called to “seek information” about the Caisse, the $176-billion fund which holds a minority share in the railway.

The Caisse holds a 12.77 per cent share in the railway — but that investment is worth almost nothing, estimated at $1,000 at the end of 2012.

The Caisse had invested $7 million in share capital in 2003, and provided a $7.7 million loan that was fully repaid in 2011.

Compensation could end up being a thorny issue as threats of lawsuits have surfaced and finger-pointing has gone on between the railway and the fire department in nearby Nantes, Que., over possible causes for the derailment.

The company says the fire department shut off the engine, which affected the breaks. The fire department, however, says it was simply applying proper procedure.

A key question will be how the two sides communicated before leaving the scene. The train was left unattended, took off, and began rolling downhill with increasing speed on a destructive 20-minute journey to Lac-Megantic.

Burkhardt said the fire department was dealing with a company employee who was not familiar with diesel engines. Meanwhile, he said, the fire department was not familiar with train safety.

He said the train’s handbrakes appeared not to have been properly applied.

Burkhardt said a company employee said he had set all 11 handbrakes, but that the statement had been called into question.

He said that employee has been suspended pending a police investigation. The company has previously called the train engineer, Quebecer Tom Harding, a hero for apparently rushing to the scene and managing to stop some of the ghost cars.

Burkhardt speculated that the tragedy would lead to changes in industry policy. He said his company has already stopped using one-man crews.

He became agitated when asked why he hadn’t apologized.

He responded to a reporter that perhaps he hadn’t been listening to the first dozen apologies — then said he would add another one, making what he called one more “abject apology.”