"He's not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him," Burkhardt said. "I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges .<!p>.<!p>. If that's the case, let the chips fall where they may."
Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash. The heart of the town's central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape Wednesday.
At a news conference shortly before Burkhardt's arrival, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted his company's response.
"We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public," Marois said. She depicted Burkhardt's attitude as "deplorable" and "unacceptable."
Burkhardt, who arrived in town with a police escort, said he had delayed his visit in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials in different places.
"I understand the extreme anger," he said. "We owe an abject apology to the people in this town."
In an exchange with reporters, Burkhardt defended the practice of leaving trains unmanned, as was the case when the train rolled away. Canadian transportation department officials have said there are no regulations against it.
"For the future we, and I think probably the rest of the industry, aren't going to be leaving these trains unmanned," Burkhardt said. "We'll take the lead with that. I think the rest of the industry is going to follow."
Among the residents looking on as Burkhardt spoke was Raymond Lafontaine, who is believed to have lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster.
"That man, I feel pity for him," Lafontaine said. "Maybe some who know him properly may think he's the greatest guy in the world, but with his actions, the wait that took place, it doesn't look good."
The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.