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

(Continued from page 3)

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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"I was frightened," he said. "I didn't think I could get out of there."

While critics say he visited the town too late, Burkhardt said he may have traveled there too soon. Other top officials from the railroad had been at the scene immediately after the accident. He said he thought he could be most helpful working the phones from his office in Illinois. Considering how badly he performed, he said, he might have done better to stay away for a few more days until people's anger subsided.

"The fact is, my mission failed," he said. "I have a thick skin. I am a big boy. I went up to do my best under a bad situation. It didn't work."

Meanwhile, the railroad is now on a death watch.

While Burkhardt and other railroad officials deal with the insurance company and government officials, they must at the same time oversee efforts to remove wrecked cars from Lac-Megantic and clean up the spilled oil

The company has lost the bulk of its freight business because it's been cut in two. Trains can no longer travel between Maine and Quebec because the rail yard in Lac-Megantic is classified as a crime scene.

Given the reduced cash flow, mounting cleanup costs and huge legal liabilities, some industry observers say they can't see how the railroad can avoid bankruptcy for much longer.

When asked if the the railroad can survive, Burkhardt replied, "That's part of what we are considering right now. I am not prepared to comment. Decisions haven't been made."

Then, reverting to his habit of plain speaking, he added: "I can say this: It's a real hill to climb."

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomBellPortland

 

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