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Sympathy greets Lac-Megantic suspects

Sympathy greets Lac-Megantic suspectsFormer Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. employees Thomas Harding, right, Jean Demaitre, centre, and Richard Labrie are escorted by police to appear in court in Lac-Megantic, Que., on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. 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 CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - A striking silence greeted three men accused in the deadly Lac-Megantic rail disaster as they were marched past victims' families on Tuesday to a courtroom in the devastated Quebec community.

Little could be heard as they emerged before the gaze of townsfolk, aside from the clicks of news cameras — and a few whispers.

"It's not them we want," said one soft murmur as officers led the shackled men out of a police van.

Railway employees Thomas Harding, Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie were each charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one for every person killed last summer when rail cars carrying volatile crude oil exploded in the heart of town.

The insolvent Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway faces the same criminal charges as the three men.

The runaway train screeched off the tracks July 6 and set off huge fireballs in Lac-Megantic, wiping out much of the downtown core and spewing crude into nearby water bodies.

The men each had to post $15,000 bail after appearing in a makeshift courtroom at Lac-Megantic's sports centre, a couple of hundred metres from where the derailment site.

The accused, all employees of the MMA, were later freed on various conditions pending their next court appearance on Sept. 11. Under the conditions, they are forbidden from changing their address and from working in the rail industry without proper supervision.

Harding, 53, the train's driver, was joined in the courtroom by Labrie, 55, the railway traffic controller and Demaitre, 50, the manager of train operations.

Their charges have the potential for serious consequences: criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum life sentence.

Some locals who watched the suspects enter the courthouse thought the potential sentences were far too harsh, while several felt authorities had collared the wrong people.

"We can't judge these people — they work for the MMA," Danielle Champagne, whose daughter Karine died in the fire, said outside the makeshift courtroom in Lac-Megantic's community centre.

"These aren't the bosses of the MMA."

Another woman said the men probably expected a confrontational crowd and a barrage of boos. Nancy Guay said the surprising silence was likely a balm of sorts for the suspects.

"It was soothing for them, I'm sure," said Guay, a former hotel worker who used to give Harding his wake-up calls at his preferred Lac-Megantic inn.

"I said to myself, 'Poor him' ... They're not the ones who should be there."

Guay said someone like Ed Burkhardt, the MMA's chairman at the time of the crash, is probably someone the police should target.

"He's probably having a nice day today at his cottage or wherever," she said.

Since it is a company, the MMA, meanwhile, would only face fines if convicted.

Harding, who has not spoken publicly since the disaster, had been a central figure in the investigation.

Burkhardt has alleged his railman did not apply enough handbrakes on the train before it broke loose and hurtled into Lac-Megantic.

A couple of hours before the disaster, Harding had parked the train for the night in the neighbouring town of Nantes, about 10 kilometres uphill from town. He then retired to a local inn after his shift.

Burkhardt could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but in a brief interview early in the day The Canadian Press asked MMA president Robert Grindrod about the charges.

"I'm not going to comment until I get the documents, I'm not a fool," Grindrod said.

The Crown said prosecutors could lay more charges because the file is still under examination.

At least one onlooker outside the courtroom Tuesday was pleased to see that criminal charges had finally been laid in the Lac-Megantic case.

Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son, two daughters-in-law and one of his employees in the tragedy, said now it's up to the justice system to do its job.

"If the train ended up moving (down the hill) and took our kids, it's because someone, somewhere didn't do his job," Lafontaine said.

"It's not just the big bosses."

However, Lafontaine said he believes those who ran the railway could still face justice.

"A company that cannot handle its employees has a serious problem," said Lafontaine, the owner of a local excavation company.

Another man who lost a loved one in the derailment said he has sympathy for the three suspects and hopes they avoid any jail time at all.

"I hope, at the bottom of my heart, that they don't pay for the mistakes of their bosses," said Bernard Boulet, whose sister Marie-France was killed in the inferno.

"I sincerely hope that they don't get anything more than 25 hours of community service and that it stops there."

Boulet also said he felt for Harding in particular.

"This man is certainly as devastated as us," he said in an interview at his home before the court appearance. "He has 47 people to think about, so, we are very sad."

Harding's lawyer said his client has been in a state of "catatonic shock" since the disaster.

Thomas Walsh said Harding intends to plead not guilty to the charges and that the defence asked the court for a jury trial in Lac-Megantic.

"I feel that the people of Lac-Megantic should be the people who try those who are accused," Walsh said.

"As a matter of human justice, if you will."

Earlier on Tuesday, Walsh had blasted the "brutal" manner in which heavily armed police arrested his client in his home in Farnham, Que.

The MMA is in the process of being sold. In January, bankruptcy judges in Quebec and Maine approved the sale of the 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 Lac-Megantic crash launched an international debate amid concerns over the transport of hazardous goods through North American towns. The disaster has also led to several regulatory changes.

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

Several civil suits have been filed, but the criminal charges mark a first.

Also on Tuesday, the town held a ceremony to officially launch the reconstruction of Musi-Cafe, a popular watering hole that became a symbol of the derailment because around 30 of the victims were thought to be inside.

Those present had the opportunity to write a personal message on one of the new building's beams. No exact date has been set for the opening, although owner Yannick Gagne hopes to welcome his first customers in August or September.

"I'm really happy and touched to be able to rebuild Musi-Cafe, the restaurant-bar and concert venue that I've poured all my energies into since 2002," said Gagne.

— With files from Melanie Marquis in Lac-Megantic and Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal

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