Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rail boss 'also a victim' in disaster, he says

Once well-off, he's now 'just getting by'

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MONTREAL -- The railway executive behind the company whose train smashed into Lac-Mégantic, Que., wants people to know he's been suffering, too.

Looking back at the year as it comes to a close, Ed Burkhardt said he's still troubled by the Quebec derailment and has thought about it every day since the July 6 catastrophe killed 47 people and destroyed part of the town.

The chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. also told The Canadian Press in a recent interview he's sustained significant personal financial losses since the disaster.

"They had every reason to be very upset with what had occurred," Burkhardt said about the anger directed toward him by the people of Lac-Mégantic. "What they didn't know was that I was equally upset and I was also a victim of this whole thing."

Burkhardt, who said he is the largest shareholder in the now-insolvent MMA, said he lost his entire investment after the crash forced the company to file for bankruptcy protection.

"That's a big pile of money, I might say," Burkhardt, the president of MMA parent company Rail World Inc., said in a phone interview from his Illinois office.

"It's reduced me from being a fairly well-off guy to one that's just getting by. But OK, that's what happens."

He added, however, he wasn't complaining about the hit he took to his bottom line, insisting he didn't want to criticize the people of Lac-Mégantic because "they went through hell."

"(Financial losses are) not in the same category as the personal losses, the deaths and all of that, that people suffered in Lac-Mégantic," he said.

Burkhardt's frequently blunt remarks, often lacking public-relations massaging and sentimentalism, made him public enemy No. 1 last summer in Lac-Mégantic. His brief stop in the town in the aftermath is perhaps best-remembered for his tumultuous news conference, during which he was heckled by irate locals.

Burkhardt, who also faced criticism for waiting more than four days before visiting the town after the crash, had anticipated the rough reception. He defended his delayed appearance, saying he was dealing with the crisis from his office.

Before travelling to Lac-Mégantic, Burkhardt even quipped he'd probably have to wear a bulletproof vest during his visit.

Burkhardt displayed his straight-shooting style in the middle of the news conference when a reporter asked him how much he was worth, financially. He replied: "A whole lot less than I was Saturday (the day of the derailment)."

Reflecting on his reputation in Lac-Mégantic, Burkhardt believes local anger was directed at him because, as chairman, he was the voice of the company.

"I think I assumed too much of a personal role up there, so I guess I was the magnet for all of the people's unhappiness, which is not terribly surprising," the railway boss said.

He then repeated an allegation he first made publicly at that July news conference: the train driver didn't do his job properly the night of the disaster.

"They view me terribly, but I wasn't the guy who didn't set the brakes on the train," he said.

Burkhardt has alleged the driver did not apply enough handbrakes before the train broke loose and barrelled about 10 kilometres down a hill into Lac-Mégantic.

Tom Harding, the train's driver, was suspended by MMA following the accident. Harding's lawyer did not respond to a request to comment on Burkhardt's allegation.

Firefighters from the neighbouring town of Nantes have said they responded to a blaze on board the train hours before it came off the tracks in Lac-Mégantic. MMA has suggested the fire department's decision to shut off the locomotive to extinguish the fire might have disabled its air brakes.

Police and federal transport safety officials are conducting investigations into the crash.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A25

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