Harding and Labrie, members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, face potential life sentences for “criminal negligence causing death,” as does Jean Demaitre, a former low-ranking company operations manager.
Harding is the main target of the frame-up. Boss and government officials claim the cause of the disaster was that the unionist didn’t set enough hand brakes on the 72-car oil train, allowing it to roll into town and explode.
But the hand brakes weren’t the way the train was supposed to be secured. Under company policy, Harding left the lead engine running with its air brakes engaged.
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic bosses had gotten special dispensation from Transport Canada to run their trains with a one-person “crew.” So Harding, who had worked 12 hours, was required to get some sleep before completing his run in the morning.
What happened next was a fire broke out on the engine. The bosses knew the unit had problems. Francois Daigle, one of the three engineers, including Harding, who did the run through Lac-Mégantic, testified at the trial that he told company officials, including Demaitre, that the engine was belching black smoke and should be taken out of service. His concerns were ignored, he said.
Another prosecution witness, André Turcotte, the taxi driver who took Harding to his hotel, testified that the engine was spitting smoke and oil droplets. He said Harding told him the locomotive was being forced to work too hard, but the bosses said to keep going and to park the engine and leave it idling. Turcotte said Harding commented bitterly that the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic never checked their locomotives.
The prosecution called a number of firemen who put out the flames to testify. They reported that they were unaware the train was hauling crude oil. They said the train was not moving after the fire was extinguished, and that the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic official on site told them they could leave, assuring them everything was in hand. Harding, who had received a call about the fire, was told he wasn’t needed when he offered to go help out. The railway boss left, and, without power, the locomotive’s air brakes bled out and the train rolled into Lac-Mégantic and blew up.
Sébastien Pépin, a track maintenance foreman for Canadian Pacific Railway who witnessed the fire, testified he was astonished to see the engine left running with no crew around.
The train was equipped with an automatic brakes system that would turn on the air brakes on all the cars on the train, which would have prevented the train from moving no matter what happened to the engine. But Montreal, Maine and Atlantic bosses forbid workers from using this system. Whenever all the air brakes are set it takes time when restarting the train to wait for the brakes to bleed out. And, to make sure that all of them were released would require the one crew member to walk the entire train and check each brake. This would take time, and cost the bosses money.
As more of these facts come out, they raise questions of who is responsible for the disaster — the engineer who bitterly carried out the bosses’ order or the company that put profits before safety.
This has long been the general sentiment in Lac-Mégantic itself, where many people consider Harding a hero. After the fire broke out, he got out of bed and ran to the site, helping firefighters uncouple oil cars that hadn’t started burning. People there think the wrong party is in the dock.
As of Nov. 10 the prosecution had presented 20 of its 37 scheduled witnesses. Superior Court Judge Gaétan Dumas warned the jury that the trial, taking place in Sherbrooke, Quebec, which was projected to end Dec. 21, might continue into January 2018.
Messages in support of Harding and Labrie can be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC Canada H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michel Prairie contributed to this article.
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