May 13, 2014 / 1:58 AM / 5 years ago

Driver in Lac-Megantic, Quebec railway crash to seek release from jail

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A train engineer charged with criminal negligence in a Canadian rail disaster that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July will seek to be released on bail at a court appearance on Tuesday, his lawyer said.

Thomas Harding (R), Jean Demaitre (C) and Richard Labrie (L) are escorted by police officers as they arrive at the court house in Lac Megantic, May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Quebec police arrested Thomas Harding, the engineer and train driver, and two other train workers - Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie - on Monday. They were each charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

The same charges were made against the railway company, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd (MM&A), which filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

The accused are scheduled to appear before a judge at 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) in the tiny town of Lac-Megantic, where the train carrying oil from the Bakken oil fields derailed and exploded on July 6, 2013. A fire engulfed a busy night club and flattened much of the town’s center.

Lawyer Thomas Walsh said Harding should be released from jail and that he felt a “moral responsibility” for the disaster.

“They have no reason to keep him at all. None,” Walsh told RDI Television.

The lawyer described Quebec police as having been overly dramatic on Monday, when they swooped in to arrest Harding with what he described as a SWAT squad and sirens at full volume.

“It was like trying to kill a fly with a cannon. It wasn’t necessary,” he said.

Walsh said he had offered to have Harding turn himself in voluntarily if and when charges were laid.

Harding has been at the center of the investigation into the disaster, one of several recent accidents involving oil transport by rail that have sparked a regulatory crackdown on the industry in Canada and the United States.

He was the single engineer on the train, which he had parked for the night on a main line, uphill from the small town. At some point in the evening, firefighters were called in to put out a small fire in the train’s locomotive.

The train later broke loose and careened down into the town where it leapt off the tracks and exploded into a huge ball of fire shortly after midnight.

Labrie was a traffic controller and Demaitre was a director of operations at MM&A.

The months since the accident have been difficult for Harding, Walsh said.

“If we set aside the legal side and the legal responsibilities, it is clear that Mr. Harding feels very much the moral responsibility ... We always ask ourselves after any accident, what else could I have done?”

A website created to raise funds for Harding’s defense describes him as having spent 33 years working on the railroad, following in his father’s footsteps.

“Tom Jr. comes from a family that has a lot of heart and soul,” the site says. “Megantic has wounded him deeply. He will never be the same man.”

Reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Bernadette Baum

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