'I am deeply sorry,' says Tom Harding, 1 of 3 men acquitted in Lac-Mégantic trial

The 56-year-old locomotive engineer was too overcome with emotion following the verdict Friday to make a statement at that time, said his lawyer.

56-year-old locomotive engineer spoke publicly for 1st time Monday

Train engineer Thomas Harding was acquitted Friday, Jan. 19. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Tom Harding, acquitted Friday of criminal wrongdoing in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, spoke publicly for the first time about what happened Monday.

"I cannot find the words sufficiently to express my sympathies," he said. "I am deeply sorry for my part of responsibility in this tragedy. I assume this responsibility now, and I will always assume it."

Harding read from a prepared statement, surrounded by members of his legal team at their office in Sherbrooke, Que.

Harding went on to thank his family as well as his lawyers.

"I want to thank my family, especially my brother Steve who stayed beside me, and who was present every day of the trial to support me."

He did not take questions.

Harding thanked his family and his legal team. 1:13

Marathon trial

Neither Harding nor the other two former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway workers indicted for their roles in the disaster testified in their own defence in the trial, which began last September.

Harding, ex-MMA operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, and ex-rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, were all acquitted on charges of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths.

Immediately following Friday's verdict, Harding was too overcome with emotion to make a statement, said Tom Walsh, one of Harding's lawyers.​

In all, 47 people died when a driverless 73-tanker-car train laden with highly volatile crude oil ran down the track, derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic early on July 6, 2013.

During the trial, the court heard that firefighters had shut down the lead locomotive's engine about an hour before the deadly derailment, when they were called to extinguish a fire that had broken out in the locomotive's smokestack. Shutting down the engine caused a loss of pressure in the air braking system which was securing the train.

A firefighter walks by rubble on the train crash site in Lac-Megantic, Que., July 14, 2013. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Much of the Crown's case revolved around the seven handbrakes Harding had applied to the train — whether the engineer had tested them and how many would have been sufficient to secure the train properly.

The Crown argued that all three men failed to carry out their responsibilities on the night the runaway train barrelled into Lac-Mégantic.

Two other court cases related to the rail disaster are unlikely to proceed to the Federal Court of Canada, following an agreement between the Crown and the defence. 

Walsh reminded reporters Monday that Harding planned to submit a guilty plea "for his nonconformity with the regulations under the Railway Safety Act with respect to securing rail vehicles."

He said Harding could face jail time as a result.

All parties are scheduled to be back in court Feb. 5.

Jean Clusiault, left, father of victim Kathy Clusiault, chats with rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, Jan. 14. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

'These aren't killers'

Although some Lac-Mégantic residents found little solace in the verdicts, others met the acquittals with relief — including Jean Clusiault, whose daughter Kathy died in the explosion.

Clusiault said Harding, Demaître and Labrie didn't deserve to be blamed for the fatal rail disaster and explosion.

"These are human beings with families who worked hard all their lives," Clusiault said. 

"These aren't killers. We treated them like killers."

With files from Alison Brunette