Ever since the last weekend's rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, one question has crystallized in the minds of many here: Why hadn't Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, shown up to face residents?
On Wednesday, they finally caught glimpse of him as an exceptional scene played out a few hundred metres from the crash site. Around 1 p.m., Mr. Burkhardt, who had arrived from Sherbrooke two hours earlier, emerged from an official accreditation centre where he attempted unsuccessfully to gain access to the crash site and was immediately swarmed by reporters.
In the chaotic encounter – with the chairman testily responding to shouted questions as residents heckled him – Mr. Burkhardt said many of the right things: He felt "devastated by what's occurred in this community." He pledged the company's resources to help those affected. "We're going to stand up to our responsibility," he said.
He stood behind the company's safety record but acknowledged, "We blew it all." And while he cited human error on the part of an engineer, he took full responsibility, explaining he spent the first days after the derailment dealing with crash-related issues from his Illinois office. "If I lived here, I would be very angry with the management of this company," he said. "We are making an abject apology to the people in this town."
Several onlookers were not satisfied. "Nothing he says will suffice for losing our town and our people," said a tearful Joanne Orichefqui, who was evacuated from her home. "How do we get back from this?"
Mr. Burkhardt delivered one message many residents did not want to hear: after the clean-up, "We'll…build track back and start to run trains through here again."
Ghislain Bolduc, the area's provincial political representative, acknowledged many residents would prefer if the track was ripped up, but suggested it would be impractical. "How else are we going to transport goods – in trucks through the town? Is it better? You have to think very seriously and take the time to do the proper thing for everyone."
Mr. Burkhardt offered frank responses to reporters' questions after touring the devastated town.
EDWARD BURKHARDT, IN HIS OWN WORDS
On whether hand brakes were set on the oil tanker cars:
"As a matter of fact, I'll say they weren't. "
On the train's engineer:
"I don't think he'll be back working for us."
On possible criminal charges:
"Let the chips fall where they may."
On whether the railway has any responsibility for the accident:
"We think we have plenty of responsibility here. Whether we have total responsibility has yet to be determined."
On why he waited five days after the accident before visiting Lac-Mégantic:
"I didn't think that there would be any use for me wandering around on the edge of town until the first responders had had an opportunity to do their work."
On whether the railway will apologize to Lac-Mégantic:
"We owe an abject apology to the people in this town."
On whether he's a compassionate person:
"I feel absolutely awful about this. I'm devastated by what's occurred in this community. I have never been involved in anything remotely approaching this in my whole life."