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Wrong people were on trial, families say

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MONTREAL—A Quebec man whose kid sister was one of 47 people killed in the Lac-Megantic tragedy says the three men acquitted Friday never should have been put on trial.

“I think, very sincerely, that since the day of the accident, these people have been living in purgatory and it must have been extremely difficult,” Bernard Boulet told The Canadian Press.

“I'm happy these three people are free.”

A jury found Tom Harding, Richard Labrie, and Jean Demaitre not guilty of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people in connection with the July, 2013 train derailment and subsequent explosion.

Boulet said he agrees with the verdicts.

“It was an unfortunate accident,” noted Boulet, himself a former railway traffic controller.

“It was caused by nonchalance and an accumulation of events—by the nonchalance of the [rail company] owner, Edward Burkhardt.”

Before and during the trial, defence lawyers and Lac-Megantic residents often brought up Burkhardt's name.

They insinuated it was he who primarily was responsible for the tragedy in his role as chairman of the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which owned the train and the tracks on which it derailed.

Reached by telephone at his office outside Chicago shortly after Friday's verdicts were announced, Burkhardt told The Canadian Press he wasn't surprised to hear people were suggesting he should have been the one on trial.

“There were a lot of people screaming for people, including me, to stand trial and all that,” he noted.

“The police and the prosecutors made a thorough investigation of what happened and so did the [Transportation Safety Board of Canada], and they concluded [if] there was going to be a prosecution, it would be limited to the people that they brought, and I can't say more than that.”

Burkhardt became public enemy No. 1 in the days following the crash, when his blunt—sometimes unsentimental—remarks drew the ire of the grieving public.

His brief stop in Lac-Megantic perhaps is best remembered for his tumultuous news conference, during which he was heckled by angry locals.

Burkhardt pointed out he lost his investments in the company's bankruptcy and that he agreed to settle in a civil suit brought against him even though he doesn't feel he personally was responsible for the tragedy.

He did not say how much money he paid in the settlement.

Jean Clusiault, whose daughter, Kathy, died in the disaster, said he also was satisfied with the verdicts.

“The wrong people were accused,” he said outside the courthouse in Sherbrooke, Que.

“The jury came back with the right verdict.”

Clusiault, who followed the trial closely, said the U.S.-based management of MMA should have been charged.

Julie Morin, mayor of Lac-Megantic, said neither she nor the citizens of the 6,000-person town thought the three people accused solely were responsible for the tragedy.

“The company, MMA, had a big role to play in this,” Morin, who was not mayor back in 2013, said in a phone interview.

“It's impossible that three men alone created what happened to us.”

What her citizens want to focus on now, she said, is getting a bypass track that would move trains away from the core of the town—something the federal government is studying but has not yet promised to do.

“There is still a lot to do—the entire downtown was destroyed,” Morin added.

“There are people looking for financing to start projects,” she noted.

“There is a lot of great work being done and it would be nice to get some attention on this rather than the trial.”

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