6 September 2013
Is Tom Harding a Villain or Victim?
Farnham Quebec - Since the runaway Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) train hurtled down the tracks and into the heart of Lake Megantic in the early hours of 6 Jul 2013, we have seen the tally of the horror grow. Forty-seven men, women, and children dead. A town, population 6,000, gutted. Dozens of residents homeless. Livelihoods, of destroyed business owners, their employees, nearly 50 MMA employees laid off in the aftermath, lost. The economies of Quebec's rail towns threatened.
Still left to be determined is whether Tom Harding is villain or victim.
He is the engineer who parked the 72-car train two hours before the disaster. Hours later, he was in a Lake Megantic police station, facing a barrage of questions. Soon after, he was in hiding.
Harding's employer, though initially hailing him as a hero who averted an even worse disaster, is blaming him: "It is an incontrovertible fact that he didn't set adequate hand brakes on his train, although he had plenty of time to do so," said Ed Burkhardt, the chairman of MMA, in a statement to the Star on Friday.
A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Lake Megantic victims calls Harding "an incompetent employee," and accuses him of failing to apply adequate brakes, if at all.
But family, friends, and many residents of Farnham, where he lives, as well as Lake Megantic describe Tom Harding as a high-calibre, experienced employee who has become the fall guy for what they call the cheap and irresponsible business practices of MMA. Some of his colleagues believe he was simply following company policy that night.
Probes by the Quebec police and the Transportation Safety Board are underway. But even after the release of their conclusions, it may be difficult, indeed impossible, to determine to what extent one man can be blamed for such a tragedy.
Sometimes there are no easy villains.
We are unlikely to hear from the man himself soon. Few in Farnham, a town of 8,000 about 200 kilometres west of Lake Megantic, have seen him in the weeks since the disaster.
Accustomed to life on the move, Harding has been off the job since that night, initially suspended with pay from MMA. Harding's lawyer, Thomas Walsh, said he is currently not being paid by the company, though he is receiving workman's compensation for a stress-related condition.
The engineer is trying each day to keep his head above water, Walsh said: Harding has been working around the house, going for walks, swimming, and enjoying outdoor activities with his son. Friends say Harding is a natural athlete and loves being active with his teenaged son.
In late August, as the midday sun beat down in the dusty rail town he calls home, Harding and his son secured a pair of yellow kayaks to the cab of a black pick-up truck outside his stone bungalow.
Approached by a reporter, Harding slowly shook his head when asked how he was doing, his jaw clenched and his lips pursed in a visible effort not to say a word.
"Even though he is deeply affected by this, he's aware of the fact, deeply aware of the fact, that anything that he is feeling doesn't even come anywhere close to what the victims feel," Walsh explains. "It's kind of embarrassing in a sense to talk about his problems when the Megantic people have had so many more serious problems."
A Town of Train Tracks
Railway crossing signs dot Farnham's wide streets, the thud-thud of tracks unavoidable on a drive around town. Like many communities in Quebec's Eastern Townships, Farnham was built around the rails.
The community has been a popular stop-over en route to the U.S. or the Maritimes for decades, making the rail industry among the town's biggest employers.
"We grew up with the train," said Farnham resident Francine Tessier, who lives across the street from the train station. "My dad worked on the trains, my husband's uncle, all the older residents have parents who worked on the trains."
Harding, too, is a child of the rails. His late father, Tom, was an engineer for Canadian Pacific Railroad for 42 years. Together with his mother, Betty, they were a close-knit anglophone family of seven with three boys and two girls.
Eager to start his career after attending high school in nearby Cowansville, Harding worked odd jobs until he turned 18 and was old enough to work for CP. He has been with MMA since it took over the stretch of rail owned by CP.
Harding's two brothers, too, are rail men. Taken together, Harding and his father, siblings, uncles, and cousins have more than 300 years of railway experience. Harding had a son with a local woman he is no longer with, and locals said her father also worked on the railway.
Burkhardt told the Star he could not, for privacy reasons, release Harding's safety record with the MMA but said he had "a generally decent record until the disaster." Canadian National confirmed that Harding, as an MMA employee, was involved in a minor incident along one of its rail lines in St-Hyacinthe last summer, though a spokesperson said he could not provide details.
"He adores trains, they're his life, Tom, trains," said an MMA employee who has worked with Harding for years.
He and two other employees interviewed by the Star spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from MMA for speaking to media during a tumultuous time.
Last month, MMA filed for bankruptcy protection. Soon after, it was ordered by the Canada Transportation Agency to suspend operations in late August, until an eleventh hour agreement said it could continue operations into the fall. Speculation now abounds about who, if anyone, will take over the section of rails slipping from MMA's grasp.
Employees have been hit hard: Before the derailment, MMA employed 75 people in Quebec, just 20 remain, according to the union representing the workers. Many who lost jobs are from the Farnham area.
Trains are still running short trips throughout the region, but have stopped running through the town. Since 6 Jul 2013, one train with dozens of train cars attached has remained on the outskirts of Farnham, a reminder of the uncertain future of the railway industry in the region.
Josef Husler, Farnham's longtime mayor, is concerned that problems moving goods on the railway will dramatically increase the number of trucks on the road.
He's worried, too, about the ongoing economic impact: between 1,000 and 1,150 jobs in Brome-Missisquoi, the region that surrounds Farnham, alone depend on a functioning railroad.
Residents have directed their anger at MMA, whose Quebec headquarters are located in Farnham's train station. The neglected brick building, walls stained with dried dirt, faded paint chipping off the window sills, embodies the biggest complaint, that the company has been cutting corners and costs since it came to town.
"They have never invested money," Husler said. "And the rails are not getting better. How is it that they can keep operating?"
"Look at the condition of the tracks between Nantes and Lake Megantic," said Guy Farrell, spokesperson for the United Steelworkers Union, which is representing MMA employees. "You have the railway ties that are rotten, rotten enough that the spikes are popping right out."
MMA employee Roger Noiseux, also a member of the town council, announced shortly after the disaster that he would be taking a leave of absence from both jobs, saying he needed time away from a company that is getting so much heat.
"We see posters and graffiti and we hear a lot of disagreeable comments about the company," he told a regional francophone newspaper at the end of July in announcing his leave. "People are not necessarily saying anything to your face, but we sense a deep anger."
In his written statement to the Star, Burkhardt responded to the criticisms, saying infrastructure had "nothing to do with the Lake Megantic derailment."
"All of MMA's cash flow for 10 years went into infrastructure improvements, we never paid a dividend. The infrastructure met all applicable rules for the speeds at which trains operated, and was inspected repeatedly by Transport Canada."
Following the disaster, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration inspected all the company's U.S. tracks and found no significant defects, Burkhardt said, adding that, prior to the Lake Megantic accident the company had never had a significant main line derailment in its 10-year history.
Anger, too, is being directed at Canada's train regulation system, which since the disaster has been criticized for failing to put adequate safety rules in place.
Chief among the criticism is the regulator's allowance of a one-man crew. That Harding was the lone driver of the train the night of the disaster was not an anomaly but common practice at MMA. Long-time rail workers remember a time when there was at least one other person on the train, if not more.
"Employees don't understand how Transport Canada allowed one man. We never understood that, and we still don't understand," said the MMA employee. "What if I have a heart attack?"
Anger at the company and government regulation seems to have eclipsed any animosity about Harding and his role in the disaster. In bars around town, local eatery Chez Roger and in Harding's neighbourhood, the man is repeatedly described as conscientious and hardworking.
"We are more on the side of the train engineer than anything else. The fault was put on MMA, and then they threw the fault on him," said Olivier Audette, who lives just a few houses away from Harding.
Instead of threats and hate mail, Harding has received sympathetic letters, his lawyer said, including emails and handwritten cards from across the country, some from strangers.
"I can't begin to imagine the trauma this man must feel to have had any role at all in this tragedy, let alone to be thrown under the bus by his employer," wrote one.
"As someone who is regularly responsible for the safety of others in my line of work, I have an appreciation for the emotional toll that this incident must be having on Mr. Harding," said another.
Messages from fellow rail workers have also come in, including ones Walsh said share stories of accidents that employees feel were caused by a company trying to cut costs.
The MMA engineer who worked for years with Harding said he and others believe his colleague had followed the regulations when parking the train that night, but that those rules simply weren't enough to guarantee safety. No one is mad at Harding, he adds matter-of-factly.
But that doesn't mean no one thinks Harding played a part.
"He is a great worker," said another MMA employee, speaking outside the train station as he began his shift. "It was an error, whose it was, we don't know. A man is a man. Error is human."
A Serious Guy
For Tom Harding and many others who work on the railroad, Lake Megantic, a lush lake town on the border with Maine, is a second home, a popular spot to make a crew change.
Like most rail workers, Harding spent his overnights in town at L'Eau Berge, an old hotel near the waterfront. Before heading to bed, he sometimes came down to the bar.
"He'd have a beer on occasion," said Gilles Fluet, a regular at L'Eau Berge. "After that, he'd go. He is a serious guy, who is very serious about his work."
Clement Rancourt, the owner of Taxi Megantic, who drove Harding often, remembers him as chatty, his son a favourite topic.
Not long before the disaster, Harding posed with his son, graduating from Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. His arm around his boy, Harding is grinning widely on his Facebook page.
"He's always talking about his son. And it's always about how he's going to go pick him up and they're going to go boating or water skiing," Rancourt said.
A sports guy, Harding makes trips to the U.S. to go boating, or to nearby Bromont, Quebec, to snowboard. A photo of him on Facebook shows him with "Tommy" stitched into his ski pants.
On 5 Jul 2013, just after 11 p.m., Harding was finishing his shift when he parked the MMA train, five locomotives and 72 cars carrying crude oil, in Nantes, Quebec. MMA engineers regularly park trains in the small community, about 10 kilometres west of Lake Megantic.
According to Burkhardt, Harding said that he placed 11 handbrakes. Then, as is common practice, he called a cab to take him to Lake Megantic.
The Transportation Safety Board says at 11:50 p.m., a rail traffic controller received a report of a fire on the locomotive. A local fire crew arrived shortly and extinguished the blaze within 10 minutes.
The Nantes fire chief told the media shortly after the derailment that his crew then shut off the engine, which MMA later blamed for releasing the brakes holding the train in place. Whether the small fire was a factor in the derailment is being investigated.
Just over an hour later, the train began its driverless descent down a gradual decline, quickly gaining momentum. The speeding train cutting through the darkness, the absence of lights the first alarming sight for witnesses, plowed into Lake Megantic's downtown at 1:14 a.m.
One witness said Harding rushed out of his hotel room as chaos erupted at the L'Eau Berge bar. Catherine Pomerleau-Pelletier, a waitress there, told The Canadian Press shortly after the disaster that she saw Harding leave his room looking "very, very, very shaken up."
"He didn't do anything, but his face was pretty descriptive. It said everything."
Where he went next, according to MMA, was directly to the scene of the derailment. Burkhardt said Harding used a lightweight device used to haul rail cars to pull a total of nine cars away from the disaster.
In the immediate aftermath, Burkhardt praised these actions, which may have averted further explosions. He also said Harding had followed company procedure.
It was when he arrived in Lake Megantic on 10 Jul 2013, five days after the derailment, that Burkhardt said the incident would not have occurred if the hand brakes had been properly applied.
Hours after the derailment, Harding was taken to a Lake Megantic police station, where he was questioned for 10 hours, unaccompanied by a lawyer, since he was considered a witness. According to Walsh, Harding's lawyer, the engineer was not permitted to use the washroom without a police escort, which suggests he was not being regarded solely as a witness.
Saturday night, Harding made the more than two-hour drive home to Farnham in a taxi. The driver told Rancourt, the taxi company owner, that Harding called his mother from the car, then slept the rest of the way.
"He was a man who was very exhausted," Rancourt said.
While forensic workers began the task of identifying bodies. crews began collecting evidence.
Last month, the Transportation Safety Board wrapped up its on-site examination of the wreckage. A months-long investigative process has since begun, including reviewing 3D images of the crash, examining wreckage in the lab, reviewing data from the locomotive's event recorder, reconstructing important parts of the disaster, and conducting brake tests on both the locomotive and tanks cars being held in Nantes.
Both investigations continue, neither with an end in sight. Police cannot comment on the likelihood of charges until the probe is complete.
A Town Moves Forward
Floodlights cast wide swaths of fluorescent light onto Lake Megantic's ruined core as the night shift clean-up crew continues the round-the-clock effort, now mostly devoted to pumping oil from the grounds.
On this cool night in late August, the disaster zone, a vast section of the town blocked off by high fences, looks drastically different from the scene six weeks before. The charred and crumpled train cars, which had stacked violently then burned like a monstrous pile of logs, have been removed, sent to Ottawa for analysis.
Gone, too, are burnt cars and remnants of more than two dozen buildings. In their place trenches have been dug to collect oil and rain water.
"Relatively, it's much better than it used to be," said Richard Laplante, whose second-floor apartment overlooks the epicentre of the explosions and neighbouring St. Agnes church, which was left untouched.
"I still try to only look at the church."
Across town, on a grassy hill beside a grocery store parking lot, the relocated Musi-Cafe is once again drawing hundreds. Initially representing the worst of grief and destruction, many of the 47 people killed were at Musi-Cafe, inside or on the patio, this temporary outdoor venue is evidence of the town's determination to recover.
The free concerts, occurring most weekends since the beginning of August, have been a distraction. The bar set up under a tent provides a place for a community to come together and remember.
"Being together, sharing and talking, it helps, it's why we come," said Jules Latulippe, a manager at Masonite, a door factory that lost three employees. He cries freely as he speaks, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes.
Sitting next to him is Damien Dubois. Long-time friends, the men raised their kids together. Dubois' 27-year-old son, Maxime, died inside Musi-Cafe three days before his girlfriend gave birth to a baby girl.
"When I'm out, talking to my friends, it's then that I'm okay," said Dubois. "When I'm at home, maybe I open up my computer, I come across photos of Maxime, that's when it's hard."
Giving his town a place to gather is how Musi-Cafe owner Yannick Gagne feels most useful now. He lost three employees and a business he had been growing for over a decade.
Staying occupied helps. At home, alone with his thoughts, he replays the scene that night he left the bar, just 30 minutes before the disaster.
"I remember where everybody was sitting, everybody who died that night. He was in this corner, he was at the counter, he asked me to do a shot with him, it was this guy's birthday so I paid for his shot, these guys were over here and I told them See you guys, I'm off, more were on the patio having a cigarette, so I stopped and chatted before I left."
Gagne had left that night to relieve the babysitter who was taking care of his young children. In just one example of how this town's grief interconnects, weaving through families, friends, and acquaintances, leaving residents mourning not one death but dozens, the sitter's mother died at the Musi-Cafe.
Gagne states plainly that he has not accepted what has happened, that anger is still present, directed at Harding, yes, but not stopping there.
"The company, the driver who did not do his job, the government, everyone," he said.
He is one of the two men named in a class action lawsuit filed just days after the crash. Harding is among the defendants in a suit that alleges, among other things, that he did not apply any or sufficient hand brakes.
The other man named in the class action suit is Guy Ouellet, who lost his partner of five years, Diane Bizier. The pair had been together at the Musi-Cafe that night, but Ouelett had decided to call it an early night.
Sitting in his living room, a lone photo of Bizier hanging on the wall, Ouellet said plans for a funeral are going ahead, even though her body has not been returned to her family. A memorial ceremony was scheduled to take place Friday, two months to the day she died.
Because of the complexity of identifying human remains, many other families are in the same position. They have been told it could be weeks, or longer.
"We haven't been able to grieve," said Dubois, who awaits Maxime's body. He wonders how many difficult milestones will have to pass before he can get closure, the birth of his granddaughter and his son's birthday have come and gone. Christmas looms.
Lack of closure has been a struggle, said Louise Bergeron, a grief counsellor currently based at St. Agnes church. She has been working closely with families, helping arrange funerals for those who want to go ahead without the bodies.
Nonetheless, time is doing its work.
"The more the weeks go by, even if the bodies are not given back to the families, this idea that they won't see their loved one again is starting to sink in," she said.
Inside St. Agnes, hundreds of multi-coloured hearts bearing personal messages cover memorial tables, adorn walls, or are stuffed into vases. Church staff had set out the hearts for visitors wanting to leave a note, anticipating they would fill up a poster or two.
Taken together, the tone is hopeful, calming. "May you find some comfort." "May God bless you and watch over you."
The words are getting through to some townspeople who are beginning to find peace. But many are still grappling with anger, said Serge Lacroix, a church employee.
When it comes to Harding's role, the majority of people are reserving judgment for the results of the investigations, he said.
"But it's certain that there are others in some families who think that if he did his job like he should have, my daughter, my wife, my dad, would still be here," he said.
Ouellet is not in that camp. Though Harding's name was brought up initially, he said he is now not being mentioned at all.
"We're talking about the company in general, we're talking about the state of the railway," he said.
That is, when Ouellet is talking at all. At first he frequently discussed the disaster with friends because he needed to. Now, it's happening less.
"We want to move on to other things, try to forget what happened."
For some, moving on means moving the tracks that carried the "train from hell" into town in the first place.
Since the disaster, a chorus of residents have cried out against the train returning to their town, saying it should no longer come through the downtown core. The more extreme view is that the railroad should be moved away from town.
But with jobs, businesses, and industries relying on a functioning railroad as much as any other rail town, relocating the tracks too far from Lake Megantic could create a new disaster.
The train is no simple villain, either.