LAC-MEGANTIC, QUEBEC – As a raging inferno from an exploded train lit up the night sky and flames incinerated much of a Canadian town, a hero headed right into the danger.
He valiantly drove a piece of heavy machinery to ground zero of Saturday’s disaster, detached several oil-carrying rail cars that had not yet exploded and pulled them away, preventing the tragedy from becoming even worse.
But the train’s engineer — the individual hailed by some as the hero who saved the day — also is accused by some as the culprit who caused the disaster.
The engineer, identified as Tom Harding, according to railway officials, failed to properly set the train’s brakes on the train.
That tragic oversight allowed the train to roll downhill and crash into this picturesque lakeside village near Montreal, leading to several explosions and a massive fire that incinerated the heart of the town.
Police fear 50 people have died as a result of the accident, with 20 confirmed dead and 30 still unaccounted for.
After racing downhill, the unmanned train flew off a curve in the track, igniting the massive inferno and several explosions.
Lac-Megantic residents who fled their homes gathered near the lake 500 meters from the tail-end of the train, watching their small town go up in flames and smoke.
Suddenly, a piece of heavy machinery was driven up, according to Jacques Gagnon, a town hall employee who lived several hundred meters from the devastated city center.
Gagnon thought at first that the heavy equipment was there to help fight the fire or clear building debris.
But he and Luc Vandewalle, a friend, were stunned to see the machine haul away eight or nine cars that were about to explode.
“If they had exploded, the fire certainly would have spread to our neighborhood and our house probably would have been destroyed too,” Gagnon said.
Denis Lauzon, the head of the town fire department, said he has been informed of that night’s heroics, but was unable to confirm the identity of the person responsible.
But Vanderwalle, who works at another lumber processing plant, says he saw everything.
He confirmed that the brave soul who raced toward the fire was indeed Harding, the now maligned driver of the train.
“He was dressed like a fireman. He went to get the machine and he detached the wagons,” Vanderwalle said with certainty.