July 29, 2013

'My mission failed': Rail chief admits mistakes in disaster's wake

Ed Burkhardt's missteps after the deadly July 6 train explosion in Lac-Megantic made him one of the most reviled people in Canada.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Ed Burkhardt
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Ed Burkhardt was jeered when he spoke in Lac-Megantic on July 10.

Reuters

Ed Burkhardt
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Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, is surrounded by media representatives after arriving in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 10. Burkhardt, the head of the company whose oil-tanker train killed 47 people when it exploded in the small Quebec town, heard cries of “murderer” from furious town residents.

Reuters

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Burkhardt created the impression that he didn't care about the devastation his railroad had caused, she said.

"I do believe he cares," she said. "He just wasn't prepared to deal with the magnitude of the crisis."

Burkhardt's first mistake after the accident, his critics say, was to issue a news release in French that was so poorly translated that many people assumed it was done by Google's online translation service. Burkhardt later explained that his company couldn't immediately find a translator so it relied on an employee whose French "was not very good."

His second mistake was to wait four days to visit Lac-Megantic. While Burkhardt later said he was more effective managing the crisis from his company's headquarters in suburban Chicago, his critics say his absence made him appear heartless.

Burkhardt also appeared to shift blame around based on speculation. He first said the train was tampered with, then suggested that the engine's brakes may have been released by firefighters who responded to an engine fire while the train was parked outside of Lac-Megantic, shortly before the accident.

When Burkhardt did come to town on July 10, he apologized, but he also fingered the Canadian engineer for apparently failing to set an adequate number of brakes.

Canadians didn't like seeing an American rail baron blaming the disaster on an employee, said Daniel Coulombe, editor of the Sherbrooke Record, a daily English language newspaper in southern Quebec.

"He totally threw him under the bus," Coulombe said.

Burkhardt's missteps have made him one of the most reviled people in Canada, Coulombe said. "He's right below the Grinch."

On the issue of public relations, Burkhardt agrees with his critics that he made mistakes. Even some of his biggest fans agree.

Burkhardt's direct manner of speaking and his upbeat, can-do attitude -- qualities that worked so well for him when running a railroad -- failed him when dealing with the media during the crisis, said Betke, of Damariscotta.

"He has never been a guy to pull punches," Betke said. "Ask him what he thinks, and he will tell you what he thinks. In this instance, he said too much, too soon."

Burkhardt's supporters say he showed a lot of courage when he walked down the streets of Lac-Megentic to apologize to the town's residents.

"That's Ed -- a very upfront, honest, call-it-as-it-is kind of guy," said retired railroad executive Chris Burger, who worked under Burkhardt at the Chicago and North Western.

Burkhardt didn't hide behind public relations experts or lawyers, said Chalmers "Chop" Hardenbergh of Freeport, who publishes Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, a trade publication.

"He came to Lac-Megantic and spent three-quarters of an hour answering everybody's questions and was forthright about it," he said.

While some give Burkhardt credit for showing up, he did more harm than good, said Stephen Ewart, a columnist for the Calgary Herald.

"Being honest and being forthright is good," Ewart said. "But speculating wildly if you really don't know is dangerous. Only say what you know. If you assume things, you are really asking for trouble."

Burkhardt now says he had thought that his straight-talking style would be more appreciated in Lac-Megantic than a "slick, don't-say-anything PR attitude."

He said he traveled to the town to express solidarity with the people and tell them how devastated he felt personally about the disaster.

But he said he was unprepared for the rush of reporters who encircled him in the street and the screams and shouts of the residents, some of whom called him a murderer.

It was more like a riot than a news conference, Burkhardt said.

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