The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Lac-Megantic train engineer speaks for first time, through lawyer; says he's 'devastated'

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Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

A first public glimpse of the disaster site in Lac-Megantic left stunned visitors staring Tuesday at three-storey buildings reduced to piles of brick, road asphalt melted into bubbly tar, and pine trees scorched into sticks of charcoal.

MONTREAL - The train engineer at the centre of the Lac-Megantic disaster investigation is emotionally "devastated" by the tragic event, his lawyer says.

Tom Harding has vanished from public sight and his lawyer's comments Tuesday shed some light on how he has responded to the tragedy.

Lawyer Thomas Walsh said his client has been staying at an undisclosed location in the province, on his advice, to avoid the constant barrage of journalists at his Eastern Townships home.

Walsh said he's hoping to get Harding some psychological help.

He said the last 10 days have been difficult for everyone affected by the train derailment — including his client, who was at the helm of the train hours before it destroyed part of Lac-Megantic.

"I used the word 'devastated' and I think that's one word that's applicable, but he's very, very low," Walsh said from his Sherbrooke, Que. offices.

"We're looking to organize something to see if he can meet with someone more professional."

Harding's role is a central question in ongoing investigations into the tragedy; his own company called him a hero one day, then announced the next that he had been suspended amid concerns about his role in the disaster.

He is also named as one of the defendants in an attempted class-action suit.

One key question is whether the veteran railman applied the appropriate number of hand-brakes before ending his shift for the night.

Walsh said Harding has been co-operating fully with authorities and has given his version to authorities investigating the event.

"He was interviewed for a long period of time by the Surete du Quebec (police) and by the safety investigators from Transport Canada last week," Walsh said.

The lawyer said Harding has not been arrested and hasn't been charged with any crime stemming from the accident.

As such, there are no legal conditions placed on his client.

Edward Burkhardt, the head of the rail company, had told reporters last week that his engineer was under "police control" as the subject of a criminal investigation.

"Nothing (of the sort)," Walsh said Tuesday in response to that statement.

"He's talking through his hat, as far as I can see."

The lawyer said it was his own idea for Harding to go into hiding.

"On my advice, (he) got out of circulation and the basic reason is ... I felt that he had to get some place where he wasn't going to be constantly faced with journalists," the lawyer said.

"He really, really, really needed some time to recover from what is for him, and a lot of other people involved in this thing, a severe shock," Walsh added. "It's a very traumatic experience and it's not something that you deal with in a short period of time."

He said Harding still has the support of his family and union and they are trying to get him some professional help.

He can't say the same about the railway.

"He's not getting any (help) from the company as far as I know," said Walsh. "Quite to the contrary, the president (Burkhardt) is pointing at him as the responsible person so that's a pretty dead end."

Walsh declined to comment on reports about Harding being suspended. Burkhardt had said he was suspended and, subject to the proper disciplinary steps, would not likely work for the railway again.

"As far as I'm concerned, that sounds more like a dismissal," Walsh said.

"I think he's in a kind of never-never land right now."

On July 5, Harding finished work and left the train unattended to sleep at a local inn shortly before it barrelled into town and exploded, killing an estimated 50 people.

In interviews, witnesses have shared details with The Canadian Press about that night.

Andre Turcotte, a local cabbie who picked up Harding from work, said the idling train was expelling more smoke than usual. He remembered seeing oil droplets landing on his car, and asking Harding twice about it. He said Harding responded that he'd followed the proper procedures before retiring to the inn.

Catherine Pomerleau-Pelletier, an inn employee where Harding stayed, said the engineer had a look of terror on his face as he bolted from his room upon hearing the explosion.

Local man Serge Morin said Harding later helped him, and a group of locals, in their frantic effort to detach some of the tankers that didn't overturn.

He said Harding's knowledge helped them depressurize the train's airbrakes, which enabled them to move some of the cars to safety.

Harding has not spoken publicly about those events and he will remain out of sight for a yet-to-be-determined period, Walsh said.

"It's going to depend on a couple of factors — one of them is going to be his own mental health and to what extent he feels strong enough to come out," Walsh said.

The idea of making any kind of public statement is not something Walsh has raised with his client.

"I would actually advise him not to," Walsh said.

"I think we're better to let the dust settle and find out the specifics from the investigators — maybe if there are some specifics, he might want to respond to them."

Walsh, a Sherbrooke, Que.-based attorney, said he was hired by the family last week. He said for now, his role is to act as an intermediary between authorities and his client and a sort of buffer to others.

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