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LAC-MEGANTIC (AFP) – As a raging inferno from an exploded train lit up the night sky and flames incinerated much of a Canadian town, a hero headed right into the danger.
He valiantly drove a piece of heavy machinery to ground zero of last Saturday's disaster, detached several oil-carrying rail cars that had not yet exploded and pulled them away, preventing the tragedy from becoming even worse.
But the train's engineer -- the individual hailed by some as the hero who saved the day -- also is accused by some as the culprit who caused the disaster.
The engineer, identified as Tom Harding, according to railway officials failed to properly set the train's brakes on the train.
That tragic oversight allowed the train to roll downhill and crash into this picturesque lakeside village near Montreal, leading to several explosions and a massive fire that incinerated the heart of the town.
Police fear 50 people have died as a result of the accident, with 20 confirmed dead and 30 still unaccounted for.
After racing downhill, the unmanned train flew off a curve in the track, igniting the massive inferno and several explosions.
Lac-Megantic residents who fled their homes gathered near the lake 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the tail-end of the train, watching their small town go up in flames and smoke.
Suddenly a piece of heavy machinery drove up, according to Jacques Gagnon, a town hall employee who lived several hundred meters from the devastated city center.
Gagnon thought at first that the heavy equipment was there to help fight the fire or clear building debris.
But he and a friend, Luc Vandewalle, were stunned to see the machine haul away eight or nine cars that were about to explode.
"Someone had gone to detach them," Gagnon said on the porch of his house, which he was forced to evacuate for some 30 hours.
"If they had exploded, the fire certainly would have spread to our neighborhood and our house probably would have been destroyed too," he said.
"Dressed like a fireman"
The head of the fire department, Denis Lauzon, said he has been informed of that night's heroics, but unable to confirm the identity of the person responsible.
"Whoever did it, I do not know," Lauzon said, adding that he gave orders to have his people look into the account. He said he knew of a nearby timber processing firm with a tractor capable of riding on a road or on rails and had asked to requisition it.
But Vanderwalle, who works at another lumber processing plant, says he saw everything.
He confirmed that the brave soul who raced toward the fire was indeed Harding, the now maligned driver of the train.
"He was dressed like a fireman. He went to get the machine and he detached the wagons," Vanderwalle said with certainty.
A member of the board of the American company that owned the train, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) told the newspaper La Presse that the train's engineer had indeed gone to see the firemen, borrowed gear, and taken control of the tractor, which he used to pull away the unexploded cars.
But MMA chairman Edward Burkhardt was not among those praising Harding as a hero. He alleged that the accident never would have happened if not for the engineer's fatal errors.
"He told us he did things the way they are supposed to be done," Burkhardt said, "but our feeling is that this is not true."
Gagnon still thinks Harding was brave to do what he did, although he acknowledged that the engineer might not have been motivated entirely by heroism.
"Maybe he did it out of a sense of guilt," he said.