Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Edward Burkhardt is a bit of a Jerk

There was a tragic derailment in the Québec town of Lac-Mégantic this weekend. At about 1:00 AM Saturday mordning, a runaway train went off the tracks in the town’s downtown, causing multiple explosions and several fires. At the time of writing this, 15 people have been pronounced dead and approximately 37 people are missing. Thirty buildings have been destroyed, including the grocery store, pharmacy and a popular bar, Musi-Café.

As the grieving begins and the investigations continue, anger mounts. Much of it is directed at the rail company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA). MMA officials made numerous blunders in the immediate wake of the disaster. First, their initial press release was badly translated into French. Second, they were quick to blame volunteer firefighters in a neighbouring town that had put out a fire on their locomotive an hour or so before it hit Lac-Mégantic (they have since walked that back).

But those are not their biggest blunders. The real problems came when senior company officials decided to open their mouths and, in one case, make a “joke”.

MMA Chair Edward Burkhardt is on his way, days later, to Lac-Mégantic. He has been criticized for not appearing sooner. When asked about his plans to visit the scene, he said that he hoped he wouldn’t get shot because he’s not going to wear a bulletproof vest.

MMA has responded saying that that’s just his way. You see, he has a dark sense of humour.

He also has the ability to come off as incredibly evil and uncaring, as he did in this interview. His response to the situation was, “I think we blew it…we blew it big time.” Which is correct, I guess, but perhaps such flippant lines aren’t really appropriate in the shadow of all this death, especially after you’ve gotten in trouble with your “dark sense of humour”. It might lead one to believe that you don’t really take the matter that seriously

When it comes to the fact that the running locomotive wasn’t being watched or guarded, he hypothesized about “some company” that might guard trains would have a 2% higher costs and would lose their contract to some other company that didn’t guard trains. He spoke completely abdicating responsibility. “That’s the way it works,” he said as he threw up his hands, Pontius-like. It was economics, not his company’s negligence, that could have caused this tragedy.

When the interviewer notes that that’s not very compassionate to say, he responds, “it’s not a matter of compassion; it’s a matter of reality.”

All in all, his callous defence falls flat. He claims MMA has a good safety record. This is either a lie or a complete lack of understanding of the English language. MMA has one of the worst safety records in the industry in the last decade.

MMA President and CEO Robert Grindron also gave an interview. He came off only marginally better. He was, perhaps, a little shell-shocked.

When asked what his reaction was when he arrived at Lac-Mégantic, he eventually expresses sympathy “for all the people involved, both those injured and people who have been displaced.” Notice whom he missed? That’s right, the dead. The families of the dead.

Asked about the role the company played in this tragedy, he chose to clarify a “misconception”. “We’re just a transporter of product,” he said. “The oil belongs to other people. The cars the oil is in belong to other people. Our job is just to move it from place to place.” No one – I repeat no one – is concerned about the ownership of the oil. There may be some interest in who owns the rail cars. But the biggest issue, the issue that everyone is concerned with, is MMA’s inability – for whatever reason – to “move it from place to place” safely. This answer was a dodge.

Thankfully, when pressed, he acknowledges that it is the company’s responsibility to move the oil safely.

The wretched behaviour of company executives does not mean that MMA is wholly or mostly responsible for this. The investigation is ongoing, and it would be folly to jump to any conclusions. However, your company and your industry will not be receiving the benefit of the doubt if you continue to behave in such a sub-human manner.

People died. They died because MMA’s train derailed and razed the downtown core of an historic Quebec town. Offer your condolences. Say you’re heartbroken. For God’s sake, show some humanity.

[Image credit.]

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16 thoughts on “Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Edward Burkhardt is a bit of a Jerk

  1. That photo…Jesus. I just keep scrolling back up to it.

    Holy shit.

    Sorry I don’t have anything better to say. My condolences to the families of the dead, injured and missing, and people who may have lost their homes, businesses or livelihoods.

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  2. A) He’s just playing the role of the railroad executive in Unstoppable, and he’ll get replaced by Rosario Dawson in a week or two. I can’t believe you don’t know acting when you see it.

    B) The railroads automated John Henry out of a job over a century ago, but why automate Casey Jones?

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  3. From what I have seen it is still a possibility that the firefighters did shut down the engine that maintained the emergency breaks during the fire. I am surprised that they left the scene before having a representative of the company that runs the train or from the rail yard on site to ensure the safety of a train carrying oil that was previously on fire, especially if they did do anything to the train itself during the fighting of that fire.

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    • You’re right, Just Me. It’s too soon to make any definitive statements. There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings floating around. The firefighters and the company have differing stories, but I could easily see how there stories match up, if you account for some miscommunication.

      Whether there was a rep of the company at the scene is still under debate… as is the definition of a representative (there were reports of someone there, but it wasn’t a company official or the engineer). There’s also a question as to what the company’s procedures are on this, and what they told the firefighters over the phone.

      But without more information, the company (especially with such a poor safety record) is being a bit of a d*ck to automatically blame the firefighters who put out the fire on their unwatched, unguarded, unlocked train.

      Even as Burkhardt arrived in Montreal, in the same breath he blamed a firefighter and then said that the company certainly isn’t blaming the firefighters. He’s a piece of work.

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  4. Jonathan, thank you for writing this.

    I’ve been unable to find much news about events here (at least in English).

    I think that’s the same rail line runs through my town; about 1/4 mile from my house, a line which goes from Portland, ME to Montreal. We had hopes of seeing it carry passenger trains, too. If it is the same line, it not only carries oil; a nearby town here was evacuated some years ago (about 16?) because of a derailment and dangerous chemical spill.

    I am stunned to learn they park the train and leave the diesel engine running, with no person on the train.

    My heart goes out to the people of Lac Megantic. It is so easy to take these rail lines for granted, to not think about the dangerous cargos they carry; cargos that we also don’t want on our roads.

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    • That might be the very same line, zic. MMA did have a serious chemical spill a few years back that caused the evacuation of a town. So it matches up.

      If you’re watching CNN, be quite careful. From the moment the company made the initial press release blaming the firefighters for “tampering” with the locomotive, CNN presented it as fact, while investigators were still trying to figure out what the hell the company was talking about. Further, CNN had another story recently with a headline stating that it was determined that the train had been sabotaged. The story had no supporting facts (it didn’t even talk about a possible sabotage), and the police are only looking into that possibility (in the end, it may be true, but no one can make such declarations right now with any degree of certainty).

      If you’re looking for info, is a pretty good source. You might also want to check out the website for the Montreal Gazette, since they’re close to Lac-Megantic. I think the Gazette has a pretty good reputation.

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      • Can’t watch CNN, no cable TV, so it’s what I gather on the internet.

        Typically, a train goes through at 11:30 each night. There have been none until Monday night, and it was only an engine, not the long trail of cars that takes 10 to 15 min. to pass through.

        I’ll check the Gazette. But what I’d really like is a rail map; they’re not so easy to find on line.

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      • To add a bit way back when the CPR ended at Montreal, whose port is closed in the winter due to ICE. In order to compete with American Railroads (and other Canadian Railroads who had lines to the Maritimes) who had access to ice free ports, they built this line to St. John NB.

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