SWAT team arrested engineer at centre of railway disaster

Tom Harding. (PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)

Tom Harding. (PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:46 PM ET

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. — A train engineer and two colleagues were led past rows of Lac-Megantic townspeople and journalists Tuesday prior to their arraignment in Canada's deadliest railway blast.

Engineer Tom Harding, operations manager John Demaitre and company controller Richard Labrie were freed on $15,000 bail.

Each man faces 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death, one count for each person who was killed when a runaway train derailed and exploded in the centre of the border town last July.

They face maximum sentences of life in prison if convicted.

All three men were ordered to remain in Canada and refrain from working in the railway industry.

The next court date was set for Sept. 11, when the Crown is expected to table its evidence.

Prior to the brief hearing, the defendants showed no expression during the short walk from a prison van to a makeshift courtroom in Lac-Megantic's sports complex.

All three men, employees of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway, were in handcuffs.

The first to be led into the building was Harding, who had parked the 72-car crude-oil train that rolled into town before it derailed and exploded into huge fireballs.

According to police sources, the criminal investigation also centred on the railway's CEO, Ed Burkhardt, who is based in Illinois.

So far Burkhardt has not been charged, but his bankrupt railway is named in the indictment.

The railway also faces $50 million in wrongful-death lawsuits.

A provincial police SWAT team arrested Harding at his home in Quebec's Eastern Townships, QMI Agency learned.

Tactical officers were called in because police had previously found firearms in his home, a source told QMI.

Police last winter discovered an improperly stored firearm and determined that he might have posed a suicide risk.

Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son Gaetan and a secretary in the inferno, witnessed the arraignment.

He said he isn't angry at the defendants but wants to see justice done.

"I am relieved," Lafontaine told QMI. "What people want to see is to see the people, see their faces. Who are these people who didn't do their jobs as they should have?"

He called for railway police to be deployed across Canada to prevent future disasters.

The Lac-Megantic explosion led Canada and the United States to tighten railway security and safety rules.

The Conservative government announced last month that railways will have three years to replace or retrofit all the high-risk tank cars that transport flammable liquids by rail across the country.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the government will ban the substandard DOT-111 tankers from carrying flammable liquids on Canadian railroads by May 2017.

By the end of this month, 5,000 of the most dangerous tankers are to be barred from transporting crude in Canada.

- With files from Brian Daly


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