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(Reuters) - The engineer of the runaway train that exploded in a small Quebec town, killing 50 people, is a witness rather than a suspect in the investigation of the disaster, and is devastated by what happened, his lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.
Lawyer Thomas Walsh said the engineer, Tom Harding, has spent 10 hours talking to police, and three or four talking to investigators at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, who are probing the causes of the July 6 calamity in the town of Lac-Megantic, North America's deadliest rail accident in more than 20 years.
"When he was interviewed by the police my understanding is that he was interviewed as a witness," Walsh said in a telephone interview from Quebec. The procedure for interviewing someone as a witness differs from those considered suspects, he added.
"If they are seen as a suspect then they have to be advised of that, and they have to be given certain constitutional warnings," he said.
Harding, the sole operator of the crude oil-laden train, was supposed to have set enough hand brakes to prevent its five locomotives and 72 tanker cars from moving when he parked them some 8 miles uphill from the tiny lakeside town of Lac-Megantic at the end of his shift late on July 5.
But in the early hours of the next day, the train started rolling downhill, and derailed and exploded in the middle of Lac-Megantic, flattening dozens of buildings in the little lakeside town near the Maine border.
"Since he (Harding) was more closely involved as the conductor, the person who's responsible for the train, obviously he's very very affected ... He's devastated by it," Walsh said.
The head of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, which operated the train, said last week he believed the train's hand brakes had not been set properly. Walsh described the comments as "very premature" and said the various investigations into the disaster should be allowed to do their work.
Asked whether he thought charges would be laid against Harding, Walsh replied: "I don't know what to expect or when to expect them... We're basically in a wait and see posture."
Walsh said Harding is staying outside Lac-Megantic, and "for his own personal mental health" needs to be away from the media and the public.
Quebec police have said their investigation of the crash is still in its early stages, although they say criminal negligence is a possibility they are looking at. The center Lac-Megantic is considered a crime scene, closed to all but investigators.
Walsh said some members of the public have taken what he called "a pretty radical position" on the crash without knowing all the facts.
"Somebody told me that they were throwing rocks at train conductors ... I don't think it's right, actually. If the time comes to throw stones, then the stones will be thrown. But the time hasn't arrived yet, I don't think," he said.
Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman; and Peter Galloway