LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - His face gripped with terror, the train driver sprang out of bed at the inn where he'd retired for the night and raced to the scene of an impending catastrophe.
Residents of Lac-Megantic painted a portrait Thursday of the friendly Anglo railman who enjoyed chatting with locals in his accented French during his regular stopovers in town.
The train driver, Tom Harding, now finds himself at the centre of the investigation into a Quebec derailment disaster now feared to have killed 50 people.
His boss has said he could face criminal charges.
An employee at the inn where Harding slept one or two nights per week says she specifically remembers the horrified expression on his face when he scrambled outside following a massive blast and saw the inferno engulfing the town.
Catherine Pomerleau-Pelletier doesn't remember hearing him utter a word amid the chaos, but she thinks she was looking into his eyes the instant he realized his unmanned, crude-oil-filled train had just slammed into the downtown core.
"I saw him arrive, I looked at him and I didn't say a word or anything because he looked very, very, very shaken up," said Pomerleau-Pelletier, a barmaid and receptionist at the century-old l'Eau Berge inn.
"He didn't do anything, but his face was pretty descriptive.
"It said everything."
The chairman of the rail company has said Harding was suspended without pay amid concerns that he might not have properly applied the brakes on the tanker train carrying crude oil.
A taxi driver recalled something unusual when he picked up Harding from work.
The taxi driver met Harding on Friday night at the spot where he parked the train before it roared into town. He said his regular customer seemed fine, with nothing out of the ordinary.
However, Andre Turcotte did say that the idling train appeared to be belching out more smoke than usual, so much so that he recalled that oil droplets from the locomotive exhaust landed on his car.
He said he asked Harding twice whether the puffs of smoke were particularly hazardous for the environment.
Turcotte said his client calmly responded that he had followed company directives to deal with the issue.
A short time after they left, the locomotive caught fire, a blaze that was extinguished by the local fire department.
The details of what happened next will be at the heart of investigations by police, the federal Transportation Safety Board, potential lawsuits, and untold insurance claims.
The company had initially described Harding as a hero for apparently rushing to the scene where he managed to pull some of the explosive, untouched rail cars away from the flames.
Earlier reports had said he was on sick leave. Attempts to reconcile that discrepancy received no response from the company Thursday.
Police released the first name of a victim on Thursday: 93-year-old Elianne Parenteau. Most of the bodies have not been found or identified.
Much of the local anger has been directed at the company, Montreal, Maine
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who received applause from residents as she visited the town Thursday for a second time, called MMA's handling of the crisis "deplorable." The local mayor says she's angry at the company boss for cancelling a meeting with her.
Another 600 Lac-Megantic residents are being allowed home after last weekend's fatal train derailment. Quebec civil security spokeswoman Christine Savard said that means only about 200 people out of 2,000 who were forced out of their residences won't be back home after today.
Turcotte, who has transported Harding on the $20 cab rides from the train to the inn once or twice a week for the last four months, said they've chatted together about their families.
He described Harding as a really nice guy.
"I imagine it's not his fault. In the meantime, he needs support — he doesn't need harassment," Turcotte said in an interview at his home outside of Lac-Megantic.
"And if it's his fault, listen, he will pay for it, for sure."
Several locals have fond recollections of their dealings with Harding.
Another inn employee called Harding an "adorable" person with lots of friends in his now-devastated second home in Lac-Megantic.
"He's really a good guy," said Caroline Langlois, who has known Harding for two-and-a-half years.
She considers him such a close friend that she would share very little information about him.
Harding has yet to comment publicly about the disaster.
He has not surfaced since returning to his home in the Quebec town of Farnham, east of Montreal, following a meeting with police.
On Thursday, there were no signs of Harding at his home.
Canadian National confirmed Thursday that Harding was involved in a minor accident last August at one of their yards in the Quebec city of St-Hyacinthe.
Spokesman Mark Hallman refused to provide any other details about the incident, nor would he say what prompted CN to discuss Harding's record.
"CN took appropriate steps following the accident and has no further comment," he said.
- With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Graham Hughes