Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Railman in midst of furor over calamity

Charges possible; residents describe likeable man

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A worker walks through the crash site Thursday in Lac-Mégantic, Que., where a train derailed and ignited tanker cars carrying crude oil.

RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

A worker walks through the crash site Thursday in Lac-Mégantic, Que., where a train derailed and ignited tanker cars carrying crude oil.

LAC-MâGANTIC, Que. -- His face gripped with terror, the train driver sprang out of bed at the inn where he'd retired for the night and raced to the scene of an impending catastrophe in the town that served as his second home.

Several people in Lac-M©gantic painted a portrait Thursday of the friendly Anglo railman who enjoyed chatting with locals in his accented French during his regular stopovers in the community.

The train driver, Tom Harding, now finds himself at the centre of the investigation into a Quebec derailment disaster feared to have killed 50 people.

His boss has said he could face criminal charges.

An employee at the inn where Harding slept one or two nights per week says she specifically remembers the horrified expression on his face when he first saw the inferno engulfing the town.

Catherine Pomerleau-Pelletier was on the hotel bar's outdoor patio when the lights started to flicker. Moments later, a massive blast drove rattled guests from the rooms, including Harding.

Pomerleau-Pelletier saw him emerge from the inn amid the chaos, but doesn't remember hearing him utter a word.

She thinks she was looking into his eyes the instant he realized his unmanned, train filled with crude oil had just slammed into the downtown core.

"I looked at him and I didn't say a word or anything because he looked very, very, very shaken up," said Pomerleau-Pelletier, a barmaid and receptionist at the century-old l'Eau Berge inn.

"He didn't do anything, but his face was pretty descriptive.

'I know he's truly a good person'

-- inn employee Caroline Langlois on train engineer Tom Harding

"It said everything."

She almost immediately lost track of him as people ran for their lives through the streets.

The company had initially described Harding as a hero for apparently rushing to the scene where he managed to pull some of the explosive, untouched rail cars away from the flames.

But Ed Burkhardt, the chairman of the rail company, has apparently changed his view of Harding's actions that night. He has said his employee was suspended without pay amid concerns he might not have properly applied the brakes on the train.

A taxi driver recalled something unusual when he saw Harding earlier that night.

The cabbie met Harding at the spot where he parked the train Friday night. He said his regular customer seemed fine, with nothing out of the ordinary.

However, Andr© Turcotte did say the idling engine appeared to be belching out more smoke than usual, so much so he recalled that oil droplets from the locomotive exhaust landed on his car.

He said he asked Harding, twice, whether the puffs of smoke were particularly hazardous for the environment.

His client, Turcotte added, calmly responded he had followed company directives to deal with the issue.

A short time after they left for the 10-kilometre ride to the inn, the locomotive caught fire, a blaze that was extinguished by the local fire department.

The details of what happened next will be at the heart of investigations by police, the federal Transportation Safety Board, potential lawsuits and untold insurance claims.

Earlier reports have said Harding is on sick leave, although the company boss said he's been suspended. Attempts to reconcile that discrepancy received no response from the company Thursday.

Police have released the first name of a victim: 93-year-old Elianne Parenteau. Most of the bodies have not been found or identified.

Much of the local anger has been directed at the company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who received applause from residents as she visited the town Thursday for a second time, called MMA's handling of the crisis "deplorable." The local mayor says she's angry at the company boss for cancelling a meeting with her.

With most residents being allowed to return home, only about 10 per cent of the 2,000 who were evacuated will still be shut out of their houses as of the weekend.

Details are slowly emerging about the man at the centre of the incident.

Turcotte has transported Harding on the $20 cab rides from the train to the inn once or twice a week for the last four months and says they've chatted together about their families.

He describes Harding as a really nice guy.

"(Just) imagine it's not his fault. In the meantime, he needs support -- he doesn't need harassment," Turcotte said in an interview at his home outside of Lac-M©gantic.

"And if it's his fault, listen, he will pay for it, for sure."

Several locals have fond recollections of their dealings with Harding.

Another inn employee called him a "sweet" person with lots of friends in his now-devastated second hometown.

Caroline Langlois, who has known Harding for 21/2 years, considers him a friend.

"I really feel a lot of his pain," said the barmaid, who sees him as such a close friend, she would share very little information about him.

She said she has even defended him when hearing people utter "abominations" about him.

"Because I know he's truly a good person."

Harding has yet to comment publicly on the disaster.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 A13

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