Sherbrooke Quebec - Jean-Luc Montminy, a volunteer firefighter, headed home in the small hours of 6 Jul 2013 after helping put out a fire in the lead locomotive of an idling tanker-train at Nantes, Quebec.
Waiting at a rail crossing that morning, Montminy saw the same train barrelling toward Lake Megantic, where it exploded moments later, killing 47 people.
Montminy testified Thursday at the trial of three former employees of Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railway, at the Sherbrooke courthouse.
Montminy said he'd headed home from Nantes, 12 kilometres northwest of Lake Megantic, around 01:00, on 6 Jul 2013, about an hour and a half after extinguishing an engine fire.
As he approached a level railway crossing, he saw its red lights were lit up to warn of an approaching train.
"I stopped my vehicle," Montminy testified.
"But then I couldn't figure out what was going on because I didn't hear a whistle or a train engine."
"I advanced a bit to get a better look. I saw nothing, so I thought there was something wrong with the signal."
Just as he decided to cross the tracks, the train appeared, the motor shut off, all its lights out, moving full speed ahead towards the town of Lake Megantic.
"I presumed it was the same train on which we'd just put out the fire," Montminy testified.
"The engine wasn't running, and I recognized the locomotives," he explained.
He said he turned around immediately and, 10 minutes later, was telling his colleagues what he'd just witnessed.
"There were still four or five people there," he said.
"I told them there was something wrong with the train we'd just worked on, and as far as I could tell, it was headed all by itself towards Lake Megantic."
Just as he was relaying what he'd seen, Montminy said, the fire station got an emergency call.
"They asked us to help with a fire in Lake Megantic," he said.
"So I got back in my car and headed in that direction."
Told to Activate Fuel Cut-Off
Montminy's testimony came on the 21st day of the trial, a day that focused on the fire in the lead locomotive on the eve of the tragedy.
The four firefighters who extinguished that engine fire took turns testifying, describing how they climbed aboard locomotive 5017 and used a mix of foam and water to try to put the fire out.
Firefighter Ghislain Rancourt testified they were told to activate the emergency fuel cut-off.
"Once we did that, the fire died almost right away," Rancourt testified.
He said they did not touch any other instruments in the locomotive.
Rancourt told the court that at no time during the operation did anyone let them know the tanker-cars contained dangerous, flammable materials.
He said the volunteer firefighters never received any specific training about putting out fires on trains, either.
The trial before Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaetan Dumas resumes Monday, for the 22nd day.