Canada Train Crash: Quebec authorities question Chicago exec Ed Burkhardt

July 10, 2013

It was his company's train that crashed in Quebec, Canada, destroying a small town near the border with Maine. Canadian police took action after he told reporters some of his employees failed to properly set the train's brakes.

The Canadians haven't exactly put out a welcome mat for Ed Burkhardt since he flew up from Chicago. but with dozens of people dead and missing, even Burkhardt didn't figure on a warm reception. He facetiously said that he might night need a bulletproof vest. And while that hasn't been necessary, the Kenilworth resident has been subjected to obscene shout downs from angry residents outside Montreal.

Dozens of people are now believed to have been killed after a train broke loose, jumped the tracks and blew up. Most of the 73 cars carried oil, and the blast destroyed a small eastern Quebec downtown.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is owned and operated by Railworld Incorporated of Rosemont, whose president and CEO, Burkhardt, is a longtime Chicago railroad man. He first said someone had tampered with his parked train, causing the derailment. On Wednesday, he blamed an engineer for failing to set the brakes and then lying about it. As Burkhardt finished speaking with reporters, Canadian authorities took him away for questioning.

"We won't comment on what we asked Mr. Burkhardt," said one official.

Authorities are questioning all those who had a hand in the train's maintenance and operations -- and it is a criminal investigation. The carnage and Burkhardt's five-day delay in getting to Canada have made him a target of ferocious criticism and put the Chicago executive on the defensive.

Burkhardt says he expects lawsuits to result from the crash, and speculation in legal circles is that litigation would be filed in the U.S. in Chicago where judgments and monetary awards would be greatest.

The crash raised questions about the increasing use of rail to transport oil in North America.

Burkhardt said the engineer has been suspended without pay and was under "police control."

"We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?" Burkhardt said. "He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that's not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don't."

Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted the company's response to the disaster. She depicted Burkhardt's attitude and response as "deplorable" and "unacceptable."

Canadian officials are now telling the families of the 30 people missing in the runaway oil train crash over the weekend that all are presumed dead. With 20 bodies found, that would put the death toll from Saturday's derailment and explosions at 50.

A fire on the train just hours before the crash is also being investigated. Parts of the devastated town had been too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies even days after the disaster. Some 60 had been presumed missing earlier.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled downhill for seven miles (11 kilometers) before derailing in the center of Lac-Megantic.

The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape on Wednesday - not only the 30 buildings razed by the fire but also many adjacent blocks.

The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.