Lac-Mégantic train engineer's emergency calls released

The lawyer for Tom Harding, the engineer who was in charge of the train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last year, killing 47 people and destroying the town's downtown core, has released audio recordings of the engineer's communications with his supervisors on the night of the disaster.

'She was smoking pretty good when I left her,' Tom Harding tells train company

A train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in the early morning hours of July 6, 2013 killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown area of the town. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada/Reuters)

CBC Radio-Canada has obtained audio recordings of communications that took place on the night of the Lac-Mégantic train disaster, which killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown core of the small Quebec town last year.

The recordings are of conversations between the train engineer, Tom Harding, and a dispatcher at the offices of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the operators of the train, which was carrying 72 tanker cars full of crude oil when it derailed and exploded.

The recordings were obtained through Harding's lawyer, Tom Walsh. They contain all seven calls that Harding made between 11:04 p.m. ET on July 5 and 3:53 a.m. ET on July 6 in the order in which they appear in the transcript below.

The transcript is an edited version of one provided to CBC by The Globe and Mail.

First conversation

11:04 p.m.

Length: 46 seconds

Harding calling RJ

RJ: CCF Farnham, bonjour.

TH: Track release on the fuel.

RJ: Yup, go ahead, Tom.

TH: 5017 east of west, W-E-S-T siding switch, uh, uhm, Nantes right now.

RJ: West siding switch dead. Alright. 5-0-1-7. 50-17 east E-A-S-T is cleared the west W-E-S-T, siding switch Nantes. 23-04, 2-3-0-4, is that correct, Tom?

TH: 2-3-0-4 west Nantes is correct. Tom Harding. Can you call me up a taxi, RJ?

RJ: Yeah. Right Away.

TH: I’ll call you from down below.

RJ: OK, thank you. RTC out.

TH: Tom out.

Second conversation

11:38 p.m.

Length: 58 seconds

Harding calling RJ

RJ: CCF Farnham.

TH: Yeah, RJ, me here.

RJ: Yes, yes, you.

TH: I’m off the clock at 45.

RJ: 23:45 off?

TH: Yes. 23:45.

RJ: OK. You know that you’re supposed to send your ticket?

TH: Where?

RJ: Here.

TH: No, I didn’t.

RJ: When you’re through?

TH: Oh, I didn’t know that. When when did that start?

RJ: Uh, I think it started yesterday, I don’t know, something like that …

TH: Oh …

RJ: So tomorrow when you start to work …

TH: Send it in.

RJ: … send it in


RJ: 23:45 off. Eight and two? Six and two?

TH: Six and two.

RJ: Six and two.

TH: Yeah.

RJ: Alright.



TH: Bye bye.

RJ: Bye bye.

Third conversation

11:59 p.m.

Duration: 2 min.. 45 sec.

RJ calling Harding at the Auberge hotel

Clerk: L’Auberge, bonsoir.

RJ: Oui, bonsoir, chemins de fer MMA. Mon, mon p’tit Canadien il est-tu dans ton coin?

Clerk: Uhhh … ben normalement il vient me le dire quand qu’il arrive pis là, j’ai pas eu de nouvelle.

RJ: OK. Uh, lui y serait dans la cinq ou dans 15? Dans cinq, je pense, ah?

Clerk: Uh, ben on a 2 chambres, la cinq ou la 15 là. Il y en a deux qui rentrent?

RJ: Ben il y en a juste un qui rentre. Il y a juste Tom qui rentre.

Clerk: Ah, mais je le sais pas dans laquelle qu’il va.

RJ: Tu l’as pas vu? Essai-moi la cinq si vous plait

Clerk: La cinq? OK.

RJ: Merci.

Beep, beep – phone rings

TH: Hello.

RJ: Hi, Tom …

TH: Yes, RJ.

RJ: Sorry to bother you.

TH: No problem.

RJ: Hey, did you kill the units before leaving?

TH: Yes, four of ‘em.

RJ: Which one did you keep running?

TH: 5017.

RJ: The leader?

TH: Yes.

RJ: OK, apparently it start…it went on fire.

TH: It went on fire?

RJ: Yeah.

TH: Oh, really?

RJ: Yeah.

TH: OK [laughs]. I had problems with that. I reported it to Dave. Have you talked to Dave?

RJ: No.

TH: OK. I told Dave that I worked it hard coming up there and she was smoking pretty good when I left her.


TH: Now, now you’re telling me she caught on fire?

RJ: Yeah, she caught on fire.

TH: OK. Is somebody up there to take care of it or...?

RJ: Yeah, well, the firemen and firefighters were there.

TH: Yes?

RJ: And apparently it’s dead now …

TH: Oh.

RJ: And the the the fire is, is all gone. It’s extinguished.


RJ: … and that’s all I know about it.

TH: Do I need to go up there and start …

RJ: No, no, no, no. Jean Noel Busque is, he went there to check if there’s any damage and he’s gonna call me back.

TH: OK, call me back, RJ.

RJ: No, go to bed.

TH: There’s nothing to do, eh?

RJ: Beh, there’s nothing to do, we won’t start up an engine now for tomorrow morning. He’s gonna start them up. The American is gonna start them up. That’s all.

TH: OK. So she caught on fire, then.

RJ: Yeah, apparently she caught on fire.

TH: Eh ben

RJ: It might be a minor fire, mind you.

TH: Yeah, yeah.

RJ: It could be something in one of the traction motors, something like that.

TH: Aw.

RJ: But you killed the four units, you kept only the 5017 running?

TH: That was the only one that was running is 5017.

RJ: Yeah, and it caught on fire. OK.

TH: And she caught on fire. Ah ben.

RJ: Alright.


RJ: OK, bye.

TH: Bye.

Fourth conversation

1:47 a.m.

Duration: 3 min. 40 sec.

Harding calling RJ

RJ: CCF Farnham.

TH: Hey, RJ. Tom here. Listen, emergency. The town of Mégantic’s on fire. Do we have tankers in the yard anywhere?

RJ: Tankers?

TH: Tankers, any kind of tankers, of any kind?

RJ: No, what’s the problem? Is it with us?

TH: Everything is on fire: from the church all the way down to the Metro, from the river all the way to the railway tracks. From what I can see, RJ, the box cars have all burnt in the yard -- the ties, everything. Whatever is in the yard, rolling stock, is now gone -- completely.

RJ: Uh, is it, is it the train that down?

TH: No. I have all of the police here around me ‘cause they know I work for the railway. We got a loaded train up at Nantes, it’s OK. We got an empty fuel train up at Vachon, it’s OK.


TH: Flames, RJ, are 200 feet high. It’s incredible, you can’t believe it here. From the river right to the station …

RJ: What the f*** happened?

TH: I don’t know. I don’t know, but everything, everything. … I woke up 20 minutes ago. Evacuate, evacuate, right away.


TH: It’s incredible, It’s incredible.


TH: We got no tankers in the yard anywhere, right?

RJ: Tankers? No. I don’t think so, no.

TH: OK. That’s what I told them and they’re telling me yes, that’s what’s burning in the yard is, is propane and gas, and I go it’s impossible...

RJ: Oh, OK, wait, wait, wait, wait, I’ll see if I have something.

TH: OK. [pause] I can’t find the American, by the way, here. They evacuated everybody so fast, there. They evacuated so fast I haven’t found the American guy, but everybody is out of the Auberge. I’m at the Esso gas station, 24-hour there … I cannot get any closer than that.

RJ: Tom, there’s only the, the, the oil, the tank there for the, for the machinery, so the …

TH: OK, no, that’s long gone …

RJ: It’s long gone, so there’s nothing there.

TH: OK, that means it’s got to be the natural-gas pipeline that has been …

RJ: OK so, so it’s not us.

TH: It’s not us, RJ, but talk to whoever you need to talk to, RJ – it’s, it’s incredible.


TH: It’s incredible here.

RJ: Alright, OK.

TH: There’s no way to get a hold of me by the way. I had to borrow a phone from a citizen to be able to talk with you, OK?

RJ: Alright.

TH: The only guy that’s missing is the American, I don’t know who the American guy is, I haven’t found him anywhere.

RJ: OK, give me a second, I’ll tell you right now.


RJ:  Samson.

TH: Samson? OK, Mark Samson, OK. Here, I got the cop here right next to me, OK?


TH: Just hold the line, RJ, OK?


TH: Aucune tanker ferroviaire (No railway tanker)

TH: speaking to police officer: (inaudible)

RJ: Aucun dangereux. There’s no dangerous.

TH: … 100 gallons de fuel pour la petite machinerie, mais à part de ça …

Unknown: (inaudible)

TH: (inaudible) ça se peux-tu que a soit la propane en haut, chez Bestar?

Unknown: En haut de?

TH: En haut de Bestar. Il, y a une compagnie Bestar en haut …

Unknown: Non …(inaudible)

TH: Oui, OK.

Unknown: … non, non …

TH: Ok, il y a aucun wagon ferroviaire.

Unknown: Non?

TH: Il y a rien, rien, rien de ferroviaire ici.

Unknown: (inaudible)

TH: Je comprends pas … propane ou natural gas, ou quelque chose?

Unknown: (inaudible)

TH: (inaudible) … RJ, am I done with you?

RJ: Thgere is no, no dangerous at all in the yard.

TH: No, no dangerous commodities of any kind?

RJ: No dangerous commodities of any kind.

TH: OK, RJ, thank you. If you need to get a hold of somebody …

RJ: Yeah, I got …

TH: …you phone the police up here, OK?


TH: OK. Thank you, RJ.

RJ: Alright, OK, bye.

TH: Bye.

Fifth conversation

3:29 a.m.

Duration: 5 min. 47 sec.

Harding calling RJ

RJ: CCF Farnham.

TH: Has it calmed down at your end, RJ?

RJ: No.

TH: F--k. OK. So what are you gonna do with me? You know there’s no trains by for a couple of days — they’ve got to rebuild the tracks, eh?

RJ: Yeah.

TH: Yeah. The couple of the box cars have burnt at the west end of the yard and all of his ties are gone - the ties he’s got there. Nasty fire. Now they’ve got a couple of pelles mechaniques and dump trucks; they’re trying to put out the fire that’s stopping them from working, which is the natural gas line behind the Jean Coutu.

RJ: Oh, yeah?

TH: Yeah, that’s uh, that’s the problem right now. They can’t, they can’t do anything anywhere until they get that put out, so they’ve got dump trucks and pelles mechaniques, and the pelles mechaniques were up on the tracks. It has to be all inspected tomorrow there.

RJ: Bon uh...

TH: They go up the embankment between the station and the bridge over the river.

RJ: OK, but it’s worse than that, my friend.

TH: Why?

RJ: It’s uh, it’s your train that rolled down.

TH: No!

RJ: Yes, sir.

TH: No, RJ.

RJ: Yes, sir.

TH: Holy f--k. F--k!

RJ: Yes, sir. That’s what I got. It was confirmed at 2:30.

TH: At 2:30, now, the fuel train rolled down here?

RJ: Yeah.

TH: Oh, tabarnac de tabarnac! And it was secure, RJ, when I left.

RJ: Yeah.

TH: She was f--king secure.  F--k!

RJ: That’s what, that’s what I got as a news.

TH: And when did you get the news? Few minutes ago?

RJ: At 2:25, to be correct.

TH: Oh, Jesus Christ.

RJ: Since then, the phone is, it just stopped ringing for a couple of minutes there.

TH: Just now?

RJ: Yeah. Since midnight it’s been ringing like hell.

TH: Oh, f--k. So that means … holy f--k.

RJ: Yeah.

TH: How in the f--k did that thing f--king roll down, RJ?

RJ: I don’t know. How many brakes did you put on?

TH: The units, the V.B., and the first car. Seven brakes.

RJ: Well, uh,  I don’t know what will happen. The best I can tell you is that Daniel Aubé is on his way to get there …

TH: OK, well what’s, what you want to do with me, RJ? You’re not gonna lleave me out in the cold here.

RJ: I don’t know. As soon as I got some news, I just asked Jean,  Jean Demaitre, he called me a couple of minutes ago. I just told him that you’re stuck there and you’re gonna be with Samson there. So I said what are you gonna do with those guys? He said I don’t know I’ll come back to you on that.

TH: F--k. I’m at a payphone here, RJ, I got no way to talk to anybody anywhere.

RJ: Um …

TH: Oh, Jesus Christ …

RJ: You got the 1-800 number here, OK.

TH: The what number?

RJ: The 866.

TH: 866?

RJ: To call me, to call me.

TH: Yeah well that’s what I did …

RJ: Yeah, yeah.

TH: Holy f--k.

RJ: Yeah, yeah, that’s the news that I got.

TH: That the f--king fuel train rolled down, it was a question of... anyways. …Son of a bitch. Was there any railway people that went up there to put the fire out on that… (inaudible)?

RJ: Jean-Noël Busque went there.

TH: And everything was secure when he was there? Everything was fine? Everything was …

RJ: Everything was fine, yeah.

TH: And then it rolled down, what, two hours later? Three hours later?

RJ: Well, uh, fire was out at midnight, and I got a call at 1:30 that there was a fire in downtown.

TH: (pause) There’s no way to talk to me, RJ, I’ve got my radio on channel 20 right now… Uh, f--k. Dan Aubé is on his way, can he come to me?

RJ: I don’t know if he’s gonna be able to. Apparently the city is cut in two. From what I heard from Jean-Noël Busque, there.

TH: Yes?

RJ: He finally made it to Nantes …

TH: Yes?

RJ: … to confirm me that the train was not there anymore.

TH: And here the police, they confirmed to me, RJ, when I talked to you at the very, very beginning – they confirmed that the train was up there. What did it hit? I don’t understand, RJ, if it rolled down...

RJ: Apparently, it rolled down.

TH: OK, and where did it stop?

RJ: Can it be at the curve, at the crossing there?

TH: What? It derailed at the curve, that’s what happened?

RJ: Can it be? I don’t know.

TH: Yes, it’s possible, RJ, it’s possible, but it’s uh…

RJ: That’s what I think. It would be the only thing that would … when it hit that f--king curve there it must have derailed. I’m not sure.

TH: F--k!

RJ: That’s, that’s the only … you know what? I’m down here, hey, and I get the infos that I …

TH: what people are telling you.

RJ: Yeah, that’s it.

TH: And I’m going by what the people are telling me here, too.

RJ: Yeah, that’s it.

TH: Because they, they told me it was tankers that were blowing up here, at this end here.

RJ: So as soon as I have some news…

TH: Call me on channel 20. I’m standing next to the phone here, I’m out in the f--king freezing cold.

RJ: OK, as soon as I get some news there, I’m going to give you a yell. But you cannot go back to the Auberge?

TH: No, i can’t. I got half of my stuff still at the Auberge. I can’t. There’s no way. No way I can go anywhere, I can’t do anything anywhere.


TH: When you get a hold of Jean Demaitre, I’d like to speak with Jean.

RJ: Yeah.


RJ: Alright.

TH: Ok. Thank you. Bye.

RJ: Bye bye.

Sixth conversation

3:53 a.m.

Duration: 1 min. 5 sec.

Harding calling RJ

RJ: CCF Farnham

TH: It’s me again, RJ.

RJ: Yes?

TH: Did you get a hold of Dan?

RJ: Yep.

TH: And he’s on his way?

RJ: Yeah, he’s on his way. He’s trying very hard to get to you.

TH: OK. And did, did he have a look at anything over there? How many cars are burning?

RJ: No, he can’t see. He can’t get around there. (pause) Yeah, he can’t get around there. They won’t let him go by.

TH: OK. There’s not much we can do, eh?

RJ: No, that’s the best I can tell you right now.

TH: That’s OK, RJ, thank you.

RJ: So I’ll …That’s it, he’s gonna try to get to you and from there I think we’re gonna try to get you home as fast as we can …

TH: Oh, here, I just saw Dan go by …


TH: … that’s not Dan, but it’s the Highrail.

RJ: …

TH: It’s the American, I think, hey?

RJ: It must be Dan.

TH: OK, I’m gonna go. It’s a white truck. I’m gonna go see if it’s him.

RJ: OK, bye.

Final transcribed conversation

[July 5, sometime between 11:05 p.m. and 11:45 p.m.]

Harding talking to a U.S. rail traffic controller

RTC: Dispatcher’s office.

TH: Yeah, Glen, Tom here. I’m up here at Nantes. Shut down four of the five units, got the hand brakes applied. Do you have any questions for me?

RTC: No, no. I’m all set Tom, tied down at Nantes, just get me a yell when you’re off time.

TH: OK, I just thought I’d mention to you there, Glen, uh, the 5017, I worked her pretty damn hard coming up here. She’s smoking excessively now. I know it’s going to settle down once she cools down and stuff like that. I don’t know how good it’s going be on the eastbound now. When I left Farnham, I had engine hunting [sic] on it, I got it to settle down when I started using the seventh notch only, and it pulled real nice, and this last little pull here from the bottom of the hill at 26, down at Scotstown, all the way up to here, she worked pretty damn hard. Once I got stopped here, I only noticed when I got stopped here, that she was smoking excessively both black for a minute or so, and then she’d go white for a little bit, and then go back to black again.

RTC: Well you probably cleaned her out, Tom. This is Dave.

TH: Oh, this is Dave. OK, yeah. Could be I cleaned her out ... I’ve been here, you know, for 10 minutes. The smoke has cleared. Well, I should say there’s less smoke coming out of it right now. It’s still changing colour back and forth, black and white, black and white, a little bit there, but, maybe if she sits here for another hour or so, she will cool right down.

RTC: Well, that’s all we can do, Tom. We’ll check it in the morning and see what she says and see what she comes up with. Diagnose her then, I guess. Over.

TH: OK, I understand. I understand. What time is the eastbound engineer ready to go tomorrow?

RTC: 7:30, over.

TH: 7:30, OK. Well, we’re pretty much..pretty darn close. I should be like a half hour behind him, then.

RTC: Yeah OK. Yep. Just uh, you let RJ know...Talk to RJ or how he wants to do it. Over.

TH: OK, Dave. I’ll check back with you a little later.

RTC: MMA Northern Maine out.

TH: Tom Harding out.