All three are fighting the charges. They could face life in prison.
Some 50 people attended the first day of the trial, including several activists from the Citizens’ and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Mégantic, and others who came to show their support for the rail workers.
“Why isn’t Edward Burkhardt, the MMA CEO in the courtroom?” said Lac-Mégantic coalition spokesperson Robert Bellefleur. “What about Transport Canada, which gave the MMA special permission to run the train with a crew of just one person, Tom Harding?”
“I don’t want answers from the three men on trial,” Jean Paradis, told the media. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic executives are “in the [United] States. Transport Canada has let those cheap companies run railroads for less money, for making more money instead of acting for the safety of the people. Safety should come first, not third.”
Paradis barely escaped with his life as the massive fireball from the explosion that night engulfed the Musi-Café where a majority of those killed were incinerated, including three of his close friends.
“The three accused are victims of the system. The ones at the end of the line are always targeted,” Richard Custeau told the Journal de Montreal, explaining his hopes that one day those higher up in the hierarchy of the rail industry will be punished. Custeau’s brother Réal was killed at the Musi-Café.
“The MMA was a railroad bought cheap by investors, in order to increase its profits and then sell it,” Harding’s lawyer Thomas Walsh explained to a crowded hallway full of reporters at the lunch break. “Today most of the same people are running its replacement. Only the name has changed. Profits are being made at the expense of safety. Transport Canada looked the other way.”
Many in Lac-Mégantic consider Harding a hero. On the night of the disaster, he parked the train on the main line on a grade at the village of Nantes about 7 miles from Lac-Mégantic, left the lead engine running to power the locomotive air brakes, set hand brakes on seven tanker cars and took a taxi to a Lac-Mégantic hotel to get his night’s rest, as he had done many times before. As he slept a small fire broke out on the lead engine due to cost-cutting inadequate maintenance by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic.
When local firefighters arrived to put out the flames, they shut down the locomotive and, unknowingly, the locomotive air brakes. Harding received a call about the fire and offered to go to the train to make sure everything was OK. He was told that it was all taken care of and to go back to sleep. A short time later the train began to roll towards the city.
Awoken by the explosion, Harding rushed to the site, risking his life helping firefighters detach and move a number of unexploded tanker cars, preventing an even worse disaster.
Harding the main target
The prosecution said Harding’s actions were criminally negligent, claiming he didn’t set a sufficient number of hand brakes and didn’t go to check the train after the fire.
“Harding didn’t make the decision to park the train on a slope with the engine running. This was company policy,” Walsh told reporters. “It’s all about saving money at the expense of safety. This was a tragedy waiting to happen.”
The Toronto Globe and Mail reported in a March 2016 exposé that if the backup automatic air brake system on the tanker cars had been used, the train would not have rolled at all. But Harding was forbidden by company policy from using the system because it would cost time — which means money — to replenish the system with air before the train could depart in the morning.
The trial is the rulers’ way to make Harding take the fall for the disaster, instead of the rail bosses and the Canadian government.
“Tom Harding and the others should not be in court today,” Chris Yeandel, a locomotive engineer and vice general chairman of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, Locomotive Engineers East, told the Militant. “Why aren’t the MMA and Transport Canada officials on the stand? If Harding and the others are convicted, other rail workers will face criminal negligence charges for more tragedies caused by the profit-driven policies of the rail companies.”
The trial is expected to last at least two months.
Messages in support of Harding and Labrie should 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.
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