'It broke their lives': Lac-Mégantic residents support acquittals of MMA rail workers

Residents in Lac-Mégantic, Que., support the decision of the jury to acquit three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway employees charged with criminal negligence causing death in the 2013 rail disaster.

Many resident believe 3 accused were not the ones responsible for the disaster

Rail traffic controller Richard Labrie hugs Jean Clusiault, left, father of victim Kathy Clusiault, after being found not guilty on the ninth day of deliberations. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Residents in Lac-Mégantic, Que., say they support the decision of the jury to acquit three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway employees charged with criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in the 2013 rail disaster.

Many in the town say they believe it's not the three accused who deserved to be on trial for their part in the tragedy that killed 47 people, instead pointing the blame at those much higher up the corporate ladder.

The father of victim Kathy Clusiault, Jean Clusiault, was at the courthouse in Sherbrooke, when the verdicts were announced and approved of the acquittals.

"These are human beings, with families, who worked hard all their lives. These aren't killers. We treated them like killers," Clusiault said.

He added that his sympathies go out to locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, because of the toll the trial has taken on them in the past four-and-a-half years.

"It broke their lives," he said.

Jean Clusiault, who lost his daughter Kathy in the Lac-Mégantic disaster, is happy that three men were found not guilty, and says that company executives should be on trial. 0:57

When asked who he thought was to blame for the disaster, he pulled out a piece of paper with a list of names of upper management at the now-defunct MMA.

Eight men and four women on the jury had been deliberating since Thursday morning, Jan. 11, after a marathon trial which began last September.

Tom Harding's lawyer, Thomas Walsh, said he wouldn't describe the accused as scapegoats, but thinks more work needs to be done to find those responsible.

"It goes without saying that somebody has dropped the ball on that person and who knows who that person is," Walsh said.

Jean St. Pierre, the co-owner of Hotel Motel Le Château in Lac-Mégantic, points to the former chairman of MMA, Edward Burkhardt, as having more responsibility for the disaster than the accused.

"No one thought they were the people to blame in this catastrophe," he said of the accused.

"For sure there was negligence. But there were so many people higher than them who were negligent."

Michel Boulanger lost many friends and a niece in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster and he approves of the 3 accused being acquitted.

Lac-Mégantic resident Michel Boulanger lost many friends in the disaster said he's happy that the three were acquitted.

He said it's the final step before moving on. 

"The three men [did] their job with the regulations they had. They did their best under the circumstances," Boulanger said.

He said he sees the verdict as closing "one door, and I opened another door with the light."

Steve Lemay, a former priest in Lac-Mégantic said that sentencing the three men would only serve the "illusion that the case was closed." 

"From a human viewpoint, I found it difficult to see the weight of this tragedy placed on three individuals," Lemay said.

However, not everyone approved of the verdicts. Réjean and Linda Roy, parents of victim Melissa Roy, didn't think justice was done.

They said they are "very disappointed" that the accused were acquitted on all charges.

With files from Jaela Bernstien and Radio-Canada