National News

Charges laid in Lac-Megantic train disaster

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - Three people will appear in court later Tuesday in Lac-Megantic, Que., to face charges of criminal negligence causing death stemming from one of the deadliest rail disasters in Canadian history.

The Crown announced late Monday that Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. and three employees of the insolvent railway will each face 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

The arrests of the three men by Quebec provincial police and the charges against them and the company come some 10 months after the tragic derailment killed 47 people.

Thomas Harding, Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie, all former employees, are expected to go before a judge on Tuesday in Lac-Megantic, where a runaway train hauling tanker cars loaded with volatile crude oil broke loose and barrelled into the town in the early morning hours of July 6.

The derailment triggered an explosion and fire which destroyed part of the tiny Quebec community's downtown.

The three men were tracked down at undisclosed locations. Prosecutor Rene Verret, a Crown spokesman, said the arrests took place without incident. All three were held in detention awaiting their arraignment, scheduled for 2 p.m.

All three held varying roles with the railway.

"Mr. Harding was the driver, Mr. Labrie was the railway traffic controller and Mr. Demaitre was the manager of train operations," Verret told The Canadian Press late Monday.

A message left at the offices of the railway company was not immediately returned.

Criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum life sentence, Verret noted.

In late March, a Crown spokesman said the province's director of criminal and penal prosecutions had begun a review of the file.

Verret said prosecutors decided to file these charges after an analysis of the police evidence.

But they might not be the only ones charged. The Crown is still examining the file.

"Nothing is closed," Verret said. "Today, we are able to bring charges against these individuals."

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt issued a brief statement on behalf of the federal government in which she thanked Quebec provincial police for their investigation.

"I understand that this is difficult for those affected by the tragic incident in Lac Megantic," she said, adding there would be no further comment as the case is before the courts.

The MM&A railway company is in the process of being sold. In January, bankruptcy judges in Quebec and Maine approved the sale of the insolvent railway to Railroad Acquisition Holdings LLC, an affiliate of New York-based Fortress Investment Group, for US$14.25 million. The deal has not yet closed.

The deadly crash has raised questions about the transport of hazardous goods through towns in both Canada and the United States. The tragedy has also spurred several changes to procedure and policy.

Train service in Lac-Megantic was restored in December. Some of the region's biggest employers depend heavily on the railroad to transport goods.

The MMA, which operates about 770 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec, agreed not to transport dangerous goods through the town.

Several civil suits have been filed, but Tuesday's criminal charges mark a first.

Verret said the Crown had hoped to announced the charges earlier Monday, but had a number of steps to go through before making a formal announcement.

"We had to do so much today — we had to get warrants for three people and for the company and then we had to find these people," Verret said. "And of course we had to also inform the families in Lac-Megantic and the person in charge there."

Coincidentally, a news conference is planned in Lac-Megantic on Tuesday involving the rebuilding of the Musi-Cafe, the establishment in the heart of town where many people perished.

Mayor Colette Roy Laroche and Musi-Cafe owner Yannick Gagne are expected to attend.

Laroche was at a meeting on Monday night where she commented on the charges being laid.

"I'm not a lawyer, I'm not in justice system, so it's difficult," Roy Laroche said. "We know there are charges, but are they the only ones? Are other charges forthcoming?"

The tragedy is still very real for many in the community. Karine Blanchette, an employee of the Musi-Cafe, who lost many friends and colleagues, says while she's happy there are charges being laid, nothing can erase the tragedy of July 2013.

"That there are criminal charges, I think it's important, Finally, there's justice," Blanchette said. "But it does not bring back the people we lost and our heritage. The pollution in our environment will also remain."

She believes that authorities are not doing enough to prevent another tragedy from happening in Quebec.

"Even if people are sick of hearing about Lac-Megantic, I want Quebecers to know that what happened can still take place just about anywhere," Blanchette said. "Citizens must speak out against hazardous materials passing through the middle of their town."

_ With files from Etienne Fortin-Gauthier in Montreal.

_ Follow @sidhartha_b on Twitter.

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