MONTREAL – A Quebec man whose kid sister was one of 47 people killed in the Lac-Megantic tragedy says the three men acquitted Friday should have never been put on trial.
“I think, very sincerely, that since the day of the accident, these people have been living in purgatory and it must have been extremely difficult,” Bernard Boulet told The Canadian Press. “I’m happy these three people are free.”
A jury found Tom Harding, Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre not guilty of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people in connection with the July 2013 train derailment and subsequent explosion.
Boulet says he agrees with the verdicts.
“It was an unfortunate accident,” said Boulet, himself a former railway traffic controller. “It was caused by nonchalance and an accumulation of events – by the nonchalance of the (rail company) owner, Edward Burkhardt.”
Before and during the trial, defence lawyers and Lac-Megantic residents often brought up Burkhardt’s name.
They insinuated it was he who was primarily responsible for the tragedy in his role as chairman of the now-defunct, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which owned the train and the tracks on which it derailed.
Reached by telephone at his office outside Chicago shortly after Friday’s verdicts were announced, Burkhardt told The Canadian Press he wasn’t surprised to hear people were suggesting he should have been the one on trial.
“There were a lot of people screaming for people, including me, to stand trial and all that,” he said. “The police and the prosecutors made a thorough investigation of what happened and so did the (Transportation Safety Board of Canada), and they concluded (if) there was going to be a prosecution it would be limited to the people that they brought, and I can’t say more than that.”
Burkhardt became public enemy No. 1 in the days following the crash, when his blunt, sometimes unsentimental remarks drew the ire of the grieving public.
His brief stop in Lac-Megantic is perhaps best remembered for his tumultuous news conference, during which he was heckled by angry locals.
Burkhardt points out he lost his investments in the company’s bankruptcy and that he agreed to settle in a civil suit brought against him even though he doesn’t feel he was personally responsible for the tragedy.
He did not say how much money he paid in the settlement.
“Everything I’d done with respect to that company was to try to enforce stricter and stronger safety standards, and the fact that it all came unglued that day was just horrible,” he said, adding he and everyone involved still lives with the burden of what happened.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation into the derailment somewhat contradicts Burkhardt, however.
Its final report concluded, “There were also significant gaps between (MMA’s) operating instructions and how work was done day to day.
“This and other signs in MMA’s operations were indicative of a weak safety culture – one that contributed to the continuation of unsafe conditions and unsafe practices, and significantly compromised the company’s ability to manage risk.”
Jean Clusiault, whose daughter Kathy died in the disaster, said he, too, was satisfied with the verdicts.
“The wrong people were accused,” he said outside the courthouse in Sherbrooke, Que. “The jury came back with the right verdict.”
Clusiault, who followed the trial closely, said the U.S.-based management of MMA should have been charged.
With the trial over, he said, “my daughter will always be in my mind.”
Julie Morin, mayor of Lac-Megantic said neither she nor the citizens of the 6,000-person town thought the three people accused were solely responsible for the tragedy.
“The company, MMA, had a big role to play in this,” Morin, who was not mayor back in 2013, said in a phone interview. “It’s impossible that three men alone created what happened to us.”
What her citizens want to focus on now, she said, is getting a bypass track that would move trains away from the core of the town, something the federal government is studying but has not yet promised to do.
“There is still a lot to do – the entire downtown was destroyed,” Morin said. “There are people looking for financing to start projects, there is a lot of great work being done and it would be nice to get some attention on this rather than the trial.”