The Bizarre PR Disaster of the Quebec Train Explosion

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In many ways, Edward Burkhardt is in the middle of a train company CEO's worst nightmare: one of his trains, carrying 72 cars of crude oil, went out of control and exploded in a small Quebec border town last weekend. The disaster killed at least 24 people, and officials believe the rest of the 50 missing are dead. But the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway CEO's approach to the crisis, involving frequent comments to reporters and a bizarre press conference in the town devastated by the explosion, is probably doing more harm than good. 

Soon after the crash, Burkhardt began to publicly speculate about the cause of the explosion. On Tuesday, shortly after officials announced that at least 15 had died and that there was a criminal probe open on the crash, Burkhardt blamed a local fire department for "tampering" with the brakes of the train in the process of putting out a smaller fire that broke out just before the train lost control. The fire department angrily denied that charge, which was picked up widely by reports on the incident. 

Now, Burkhardt has seemingly changed his story. He's since blamed one of his engineers for causing the crash by not following his company's procedure. Burkhardt told reporters that the engineer, whom he didn't name,"was not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him." He added, according to the Ottawa Citizen, "I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges ... If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.” As the Wall Street Journal noted, the latest crash timeline from the CEO is also meeting some heavy resistance  this time from the union representing that engineer. 

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But those inconsistencies aren't the most egregious examples of his shaky handling of the crisis. On Thursday, the CEO finally came to Lac Megantic for the first time since the accident five days ago, and gave a press conference on the street. That conversation lasted nearly 45 minutes, according to CBC, against the backdrop of a devastated town and its angry, mourning, surviving residents. Speaking in English (the town speaks French) without an interpreter, Burkhardt sparred with reporters over inconsistencies in his factual statements, his informal tone, and whether he and his company were willing to take responsibility for the tragedy surrounding him at that moment:  "People are always putting words in my mouth," Burkhardt told a reporter, "We think we have plenty of responsibility here. Whether we have total responsibility is yet to be determined." Even though many of the residents couldn't understand what he was saying, they shouted insults, in English and in French. 

The Canadian Press cut together a good video of the presser and the scene around it: 

Burkhardt's behavior is widely noted in the Canadian press. The Ottawa Citizen, for example, ran an op-ed from a PR professional summarizing his blunders, including his instinct to make the crash about him, personally:

In many of his statements, he focused on the impact of the derailment and explosion on him, rather than on the citizens of the town. He told us about his 20-hour work days, about his net worth having diminished, about death threats against him and about his personal frustration that people were putting words in his mouth.

The op-ed's writer does note that the CEO seems to be speaking sincerely when he offers to help. But those offers have come with little substance, and with a lot of distraction. 

 Quebec Premier Pauline Marois also criticized his behavior after the crash. "He had to be here," she said in English, "at the beginning of this tragedy. He was not here. He was not able to communicate adequately with the community...I hope he will be able to support the population."

Meanwhile, investigators continue to work their way through the scene of the disaster. Today, the first victim was identified: Eliane Parenteau, 93. While work investigating the epicenter of the explosion is still reportedly just getting started, most of the 2,000 residents displaced by the explosion have been allowed to return to their homes. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.