Harding, along with Richard Labrie, who was rail controller at the time of the disaster, both workers and members of the United Steelworkers union, and company manager Jean Demaître, were arrested last May and each charged with 47 counts of “criminal negligence causing death.” If convicted, they face possible life sentences.
Harding appeared before Judge Conrad Chapdelaine Jan. 15, who ordered a March 12 hearing to set the schedule for court proceedings. The preliminary hearing, which reviews the evidence and sets the date for the trial, is expected in the fall.
The company faces only the possibility of fines for safety violations.
From the beginning the bosses have tried to pin the blame on Harding. “The fact is this is a failure of one individual,” Ed Burkhardt, former chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, told the Globe and Mail Aug. 19 after a Transportation and Safety Board report had the temerity to say the company had “a weak safety culture.”
The night of the disaster, Harding parked the train outside Lac-Mégantic, as he had done many times before. He left the engine running to keep the air brakes on and setting the handbrakes on seven cars, in accordance with company rules. Later that night, while Harding was asleep, a fire broke out and firefighters were called to put it out. They shut down the engine, inadvertently turning off the air brakes.
At 1 a.m., the train, with no one on board, started to roll, faster and faster, until it derailed, crashed into the town and exploded.
Randy MacDonald, an engineer with Amtrak in the Albany, New York, area, used to work with Harding. “I spent 20 years every other night at the crossing where the train was parked,” he told the Militant in a phone interview. “It could have been me. That crossing was our crew change point.”
“The company was trying to save money,” said MacDonald, who in 2013 set up the Tom Harding Defense Fund. “They changed their procedures. They had all the engineers shut down all the engines except the lead engine to save money on fuel. They parked on a hill.
“Management left the train unattended and when a fire broke out and the lead engine was shut down, they did not even send a qualified mechanical person to the scene to inspect the train, but a track department employee who has no knowledge of air brakes or train operations,” MacDonald said. “He reported that everything was OK — that the fire was out — so no further action was taken.”
MacDonald added that according to Canadian federal regulations, no handbrakes are required if the lead engine is running.
MacDonald has posted on the defense fund website articles on the dangers to rail workers and communities along the tracks posed by the rail bosses’ push for the one-man crew.
Popular TV program exposes truthThe French-language television show Enquête (“Investigation”) ran a special program Jan. 22 entitled “Lac-Mégantic, corrected version.” The program said that an unpublished draft of the Transportation and Safety Board reported that the absence of a second crew member likely contributed to the disaster. It criticized the Canadian government for changing regulations so Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway could run oil trains with one person.
Lac-Mégantic resident Guy Royer, whose daughter died in the disaster, told Enquête that when the explosion woke Harding up, he rushed to the site, risking his life to help firemen depressurize brakes on some of the cars that had not caught fire so they could be moved.
For this reason he is considered a hero by many in Lac-Mégantic. They were angered when he was charged, arrested at gunpoint at his home and then, along with the Labrie and Demaître, paraded in handcuffs to a temporary courthouse in the sports center near what was downtown Lac-Mégantic.
After the Jan. 15 court hearing, Harding’s attorney, Thomas Walsh, told the press they hoped the case would go before a jury in Lac-Mégantic.
Shortly after charges were filed, the Quebec section of the Steelworkers union launched a defense campaign called “Justice 4 USW rail workers” to raise money for legal costs. To date $200,000 (US$158,000) has been raised, mostly from other USW locals in Canada.
Lawyers representing 40 of the 47 families who lost members during the explosion and fire report they have reached a US$158 million agreement — which still has to be approved by the Superior Court of Quebec — with the railroad, oil bosses and insurance companies. But more than half would go to federal, provincial and municipal governments. To date the victims of the disaster have not seen one penny.
To help Harding’s defense, in Canada send checks to Syndicat des Métallos, 565, boulevard Crémazie Est, bureau 5100, Montreal, Quebec, H2M 2V8. Credit card donations can be made at www.justice4USWrailworkers.org.
In the U.S. checks can be sent to Tom Harding Defense Fund, First Niagara Bank, 25 McClellan Drive, Nassau, NY 12123. Donations can also be made at www.tomhardingdefensefund.com .
Amtrak worker Mindy Brudno contributed to this article.
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