THREE railway company staff involved in the runaway oil train disaster that killed 47 people last summer appeared in court yesterday.
The employees face criminal negligence charges in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, partially incinerated by exploding oil tanks pulled by the train.
The charges come ten months after more than 60 of the tanks carrying oil from North Dakota came loose in the night, sped downhill for nearly seven miles and derailed in the eastern Quebec town. It was the worst railway accident in Canada in nearly 150 years.
At least five of the tanks exploded on 6 July, destroying about 30 buildings, including a bar that was filled with revellers.
The Quebec provincial prosecutor’s office said 47 counts of criminal negligence have been filed against engineer Thomas Harding, manager of train operations Jean Demaitre, and Richard Labrie, the railway’s traffic controller, as well as against the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the bankrupt company at the heart of the disaster. The three men were given bail
The criminal charges, representing one count for each person killed, are the first brought in the disaster. Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.
Rene Verret, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said the three railway employees were arrested on Monday.
Thomas Walsh, Harding’s lawyer, said his client would plead not guilty. Mr Walsh said he had written to prosecutors several times asking that Harding be allowed to turn himself in if he was charged.
Instead, Mr Walsh said Harding was arrested by a SWAT team that burst through his home and into his backyard, where he was working on his boat with his son and a friend. Police forced all three to drop to the ground.
The lawyer added: “It was a complete piece of theatre that was totally unnecessary. I realise that this has been a huge disaster, but this is not necessary for justice to be done.
“Whatever his legal responsibility may ultimately be… this is not an easy thing to live with in the first place.”
Prosecutors said in a statement that they decided to file the charges after an analysis of evidence gathered at the scene.
The railroad blamed the engineer for failing to set enough brakes, allowing the train to begin rolling toward the lakeside town of 6,000 people.
Harding had left the train unattended overnight to sleep at an inn shortly before it crashed.
The crash has prompted intense public pressure to make oil trains safer in the United States and Canada.
Karine Blanchett, a railway employee who lost colleagues in the accident said: “Finally, there’s justice, but it does not bring them back.”
Canada’s transport minister said last month the type of tanks involved in the disaster must be retired or retro-fitted within three years because they are prone to rupturing.
The oil industry has rapidly moved to using trains to transport oil, partly because of oil booms in North Dakota and because of a lack of pipelines.