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.