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Local rail boss gets hate mail, heads to deadly train derailment in Canada

Edward Burkhardt president Rail World Inc.

Edward Burkhardt, president of Rail World Inc.

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Updated: August 11, 2013 6:44AM

The local chairman of the railway company whose runaway tanker train exploded over the weekend in a Quebec town, killing at least 15, said Tuesday he was “mystified” by a fire that apparently broke out on one of the locomotives before the crash.

Firefighters called to put out the flames might have inadvertently caused the train’s brakes to release by shutting down the idling locomotive, Ed Burkhardt said, leading to the deadly fiery crash that’s left at least 50 missing. Canadian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the deadly oil train derailment.

“I’m not alleging that these firemen did anything in bad faith or anything like that,” said Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway who lives in Chicago’s suburbs.

He made those comments while rushing to O’Hare Airport from his office in Rosemont to catch a flight to Montreal. He said he was on his way to the crash site, three days after the derailment. Police there insist on protecting him once he arrives, an associate told him, and he said he’s been getting hate mail.

One he described as “relatively calm” read, “Don’t you have the b---- to show up, up here?”

“I’ve taken all kinds of abuse,” Burkhardt said.

He said he learned about the crash around 3 a.m. Saturday. The eastbound train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil and five locomotive units derailed at the Rue Frontenac road crossing in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, at about 1:15 a.m. that morning, according to a statement on his company’s website.

It said the train was stopped by the locomotive engineer at 11:25 p.m on the mainline at Nantes, a station 6.8 miles west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew change. That’s when the train began to move downhill toward the town without the engineer, the company said.

The train sped downhill nearly seven miles and jumped the tracks at 63 mph. All but one of its 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded. The blasts destroyed about 30 buildings and forced about a third of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes.

Burkhardt said he’s particularly concerned about recent reports of additional deaths.

“There will be more,” he said. “Because they’re going house-to-house.”

The same train caught fire hours earlier in Nantes, and the engine was shut down — standard operating procedure dictated by the train’s owners, Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert said.

Lambert has defended the department’s handling of the fire, saying the blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes and that’s when firefighters’ involvement ended.

“The people from MMA told us, ‘That’s great — the train is secure, there’s no more fire, there’s nothing anymore, there’s no more danger,’” Lambert said. “We were given our leave, and we left.”

But Burkhardt said shutting down the locomotive, and an air compressor necessary to keep the brakes in place, eventually caused the brakes to release. He also said such a fire on the locomotive is a “very rare event.”

“I’m mystified by that,” Burkhardt said.

The chairman said the company has some “minor incidents” in its past, but this is its first mainline derailment “of any significance.”

Before the Lac-Megantic incident, the company had 34 derailments since 2003, five of them resulting in damage of more than $100,000, according to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. Burkhardt has called those figures misleading, and not “apples-to-apples figures.”

Asked about the company’s future, Burkhardt notes it has insurance.

“We’re certainly going to find out how good that insurance is,” Burkhardt said.

He said he waited until Tuesday to travel to the crash site so he could deal with lawyers, insurance companies, news media and outside contractors from his desk in Rosemont, as opposed to sitting in a car on the outskirts of the Canadian town “trying to conduct all of my business on a cell phone.”

But he said local officials now need to see the chairman. He said the president and CEO is already there, along with about a dozen staff members. The company is setting up a claims office where local residents can seek assistance, he said, and the company is working with the Red Cross.

“We want to express our solidarity with this community for this awful, awful event,” Burkhardt said.

He did acknowledge, though, he’s “not going to be the most popular guy in town.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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