Breakfast with the most hated man in Lac-Mégantic

In conversation with Rail World Inc. president Edward Burkhardt
Paul Chiasson/CP

Edward Burkhardt, the most hated man in Lac-Mégantic, sits down alone for breakfast. It has been five days since he got a phone call at the break of dawn with the news. A runaway train belonging to his company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., derailed and set off a devastating explosion killing at least 20 people. Another 30 are still missing.

Wearing a beige collared-shirt on Thursday morning in the lobby of a Sherbrooke hotel, a 90-minute drive from the site of the explosion, the 76-year-old president of Rail World Inc.—the parent company of MM&A–is largely unrecognized. It’s shortly after 8:30 a.m. He eats Bran Flakes from a Styrofoam bowl.

The scene is completely unlike the day before, when Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Mégantic for the first time since the explosion. He soon became the target of taunts, jeers and even death threats from residents, who were angered by his seemingly cavalier attitude to the tragedy.

Burkhardt told the pack of journalists swarming him that he felt he could be of more assistance from his office, in Chicago, Illinois. Residents disagreed. As he toured the downtown area on Wednesday one man followed and kept yelling at him: “You’re a rat.”

At breakfast, Burkhardt says he wasn’t surprised by the displeasure from citizens. “I expected a certain amount of beating,” he says. “Everyone was shouting.”

Burkhardt still wants the chance to speak with city officials, but he isn’t sure if he’ll visit Polyvalente Montignac secondary school, where those who are still unable to return home sleep on cots in the gymnasium. “I was suggested not to [visit the school] by employees and the town government,” he says.

Burkhardt had drawn criticism for forwarding the responsibility for the explosion on to others. He told the Toronto Star earlier in the week that it was the fire department shutting off the train’s engine to fight earlier flames that resulted in the brake failure an hour later. He also said that the conductor failed to apply all 11 hand brakes.

“I’ve been pointed out as blaming the engineer, blaming the fire department that shut down the engine. That’s not my intention at all,” he says. “My intention is to try and get the facts and the biggest fact of all that we have to confront is that this train ran away.”

All the while, he is steadfast that his company should not shoulder all the blame. “The words corporate responsibility are used from time to time, but what I think you generally find is that when mistakes are made… then it’s people that did it,” he says. “A corporation is a bank account in a lock box at the post office. It doesn’t do things. People do things.” Burkhardt adds that he hasn’t personally spoken with the engineer of the train that night, but told journalists the day before the company has suspended the man without pay.

Burkhardt reflects on his previous afternoon in Lac-Mégantic, where reporters approached him while he was sitting alone in the passenger seat of an old silver Ford Taurus with a license plate from Maine. The trunk was full with hard hats and construction boots. A purple lunch box was squished between the two front seats with a Starbucks coffee and bottle of water in the cupholders. Burkhardt remained quiet and unflinching. He didn’t say a word. The back seat was messy with a box of Oreos on the floor and stacks of day-old Globe and Mail newspapers. Missing was the more recent copy of the Globe, the one reporting that Burkhardt has dealt with the derailment of a train carrying gas and propane catching fire before, 17 years ago while in charge of Wisconsin Central. The damage then to Weyauwega, Wis. forced thousands to evacuate and destroyed a mill, according to the report.

When president and CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., Robert Grindrod, jumped in the driver’s seat and an assistant got in the back, reporters followed in their cars.

“It was like the paparazzi,” Burkhardt says. Grindrod quickly looped back to the police station. About 45 minutes later, the car left again, weaving back and forth—though never speeding—through the quiet streets of Lac-Mégantic, in an apparent attempt to lose the cars tailing them. Burkhardt had no interest in any more talk with reporters that day.

With his cereal finished and now munching on bite-size bits of pineapple and melon, Burkhardt says some of his comments from the day prior have been taken out of context by journalists. “People asked me how I was able to sleep and I made a comment… that if you’re tired, eventually you’ll sleep,” he says. “Well I hadn’t slept for two nights. The other night I did get some sleep—with [sleeping] pills.”

Another journalist on the prior day asked the 1999 “Railroader of the Year”—according to Railway Age magazine—how much he was worth. “Maybe I said the wrong thing. I’m not perfect,” Burkhadt starts.

“I said ‘I’m worth a lot less now than I was last week.’ Well, this is true, but I wasn’t a wealthy man last week and I’m a less wealthy man this week,” he adds with a small laugh at the end.

When asked about his family, he talks about his wife, who worries for him. “She’s very distraught,” he says. “I tell her: ‘I’m a tough old guy at this point.’”

He folds up his napkin, places it his bowl, stands up and leaves for his room. Within 10 minutes, more cameramen and journalists file into the lobby.

Asked how long he’ll be in town, Burkhardt answers: “I’m staying here awhile.”