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Rail CEO, Fire Department Dispute Details Leading Up to Canadian Train Disaster

Hari Sreenivasan talks to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Nancy Wood, who offers an update on the new criminal investigation into the train derailment and explosion, backlash inside the town of Lac-Megantic against the rail company CEO and whether the recent accident is likely to affect oil transportation in Canada.

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    Nancy Wood is an anchor with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who is covering this story. She joins us from Montreal.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • NANCY WOOD, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

    My pleasure.


    Let's start with an update on the investigation. What's the latest that you have tonight?


    Well, we know that the police have told us now there are 24 confirmed dead. But they have told the families and the friends of that small town of about 2,000 that the 50 people who are officially missing are dead. It's just that as they come across remains, they can now say we have 24.

    And they have released the identity of the first person officially. That's a 93-year-old woman. Her family says she wanted to stay in her home, she was quite spry and lively, but not spry enough to run that fast. And as it happened at 1:00 in the morning, unless you were awake, you had no chance of getting out.

    And the people who were in a small cafe, of course, couldn't get out quickly enough. But some people did manage to run, others, like this woman, no.


    And as for the investigation — you were asking me about that — I should go back to that — is that they are interviewing people. They interviewed Edward Burkhardt.

    They are treating the scene as a crime scene. And that's why they kept people away from it for so long. And that made people in the community very frustrated, because they wanted to see it.

    But they're not telling us any details of what kind of criminal investigation. It could be criminal negligence. It could be anything else, but they're not telling us.


    Is it routine for it to be considered a criminal investigation? Does it give them different procedural options? Why would they do that?


    Well, I think's nothing routine about this kind of disaster. And so even the Surete de Quebec, the provincial police force, is saying they have never dealt with this magnitude of disaster with 50 people killed in a town of 2,000, and basically the downtown of this place obliterated.

    So clearly something went wrong, and I guess they have decided they're going to treat it as criminal, but they won't tell us why.



    And let's talk a little bit about this engineer and the brakes question. It's just kind of coming into the light now that there was a problem with the train ahead of time. How — is this a he said/she said on the fire department vs. the CEO?


    Well, it is interesting, because the first we heard from Edward Burkhardt was much earlier in the week, where he clearly put the blame on the — the small town, what's called Nantes — on the Nantes fire department.

    And the fire department hit right back. They said absolutely not. There was a fire. There have been several fires on MMA trains over the last few years. We came in. We extinguished the fire. We called the railway. The railway sent personnel and we left that train in its place with personnel on board.

    Now — then MMA said there'd been tampering with the train. And now they're saying it was the fire department that disengaged the air break, and the engineer should have set the hand brakes. And the engineer say he did set the hand brakes, although he's vanished. He's now not working. He's off work with pay, and he's not talking to anybody.


    Is it usual for there just to be one engineer on a train like this?


    No. MMA is only one of two railroads that has permission to operate with single-person crews. Edward Burkhardt does have a reputation in the rail industry as somebody who acquires railroads and makes them more efficient. And more efficient usually means cost-cutting. And that is the case. He cut salaries by 40 percent when he took over this railroad in 2003.

    And he did have single-man crews and much more remote-controlled devices to make up for that. He said it's more efficient. In fact, he was saying yesterday it's safer because there are fewer distraction when there's only one person. But in this case, the engineer had got off the train, had gone to bed in that town, the town of Farnham.

    And he was saying that the fire department should have gone and woken up the engineer and brought them to the train. The fire department says, it's your railroad. We put the fire out. We called your railroad. If anyone is going to call the engineer, it should be you. So it's turning into a he said/she said, except, as I say, we're not hearing from the engineer in question.


    And we heard quite a bit of jeering from the crowd of Edward Burkhardt. Is this just frustration boiling over at this point from the locals?


    It is.

    And you know what's odd about this is that the president and CEO of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has been in that town since Saturday, but he's just been kind of incognito. He hasn't talked to many people. He was had a few meetings with the mayor, but he was very under the radar.

    So there was nobody from the company that people could see. It's hard to imagine how you could work something out, how you could come in when your company has done this to a town and win people over. I would say it's next to impossible.

    But the fact that they were not visible for so long, that they blamed other people, and that they came in and were so improvised — he was just kind of walking down the street with reporters, and he tried to give a news conference, but it turned into a gigantic scrum.

    The police had to stop people from heckling. And, to be fair, it wasn't the whole town that was heckling him. It was a few people who were obviously very frustrated and angry, but a lot of people were just watching and crying as he tried to explain what happened.


    And, finally, I want to ask. The American media is dipping in and out of this story. But you're there. Is this transcending across Canada? Has this sparked a national conversation about safety and transport?



    And you know what the conversation is — I know that you have the same conversation in the states — is oil pipelines. And there is a push on to have more pipelines across Canada.

    And people don't like the idea of pipelines. But this has led to the discussion about, well, would you rather it was by rail and on old tracks with small companies?

    MMM's safety record is not a good safety record. So it's sparked that debate. It has had people wondering what is going through our town at 1:00 in the morning? Do we even know what the risk is? And it literally has people talking about Edward Burkhardt by name and hand brakes and air brakes and things that none of us ever talked about before. But it certainly has affected Canadians across the country.


    All right, Nancy Wood from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, thanks so much.

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