BURNS LAKE, B.C. - Freezing temperatures wrecked equipment at a sawmill that hadn't been prepared for such weather before an explosion killed two workers, a coroner's inquest has heard.
Archie Alec, who worked as a chipper attendant, testified Friday that a cold snap made it tough to operate machinery at Babine Forest Products in the days before a blast on Jan. 20, 2012.
Robert Luggi, 45, and 42-year-old Carl Charlie, died in the disaster that also left 19 others injured, some with severe burns.
Alec worked in the mill's basement, where he was primarily responsible for unplugging conveyors when they became clogged with debris.
"Being downstairs was chaotic," he said. "Conveyors were freezing up ... all week we had problems with everything starting up. By the time we'd get things going, another machine breaks down.
"Maintenance was overwhelmed with calls — here, there, throughout the mill."
He said employees were called into the lunchroom for a meeting the day before the explosion.
"To us, we thought we would be sent home, but we weren't," Alec said.
Instead, everyone in the mill was sent to clean out the debris that had piled up in the basement. They had to use jackhammers to dislodge the material because it had become frozen in water that had been leaking from burst pipes.
That seemed to work, and the sawmill was back in operation by the time Alec returned for work the next morning.
Ryan Belcourt was likely the last person to talk to Robert Luggi.
Belcourt, the sawmill supervisor at Babine Forest Products’ Burns Lake sawmill, was investigating why one of the edgers had broken down shortly before 8 p.m. on the evening of January 20, 2012. He met Luggi at chipper #2, he told the seven-member coroner’s jury looking into the death of Luggi and Carl Charlie. The blast also injured 19 others.
“He was trying to figure out why the chipper was down,” Belcourt said, adding Luggi had called in an electrician to look at the edger and the last he saw of him, Luggi was headed up to the log deck on the other side of the mill.
Belcourt then exited the main sawmill building and was just outside the sawmill office door when an explosion blew a hole in the roof and, according to WorksafeBC investigator Paul Orr, launched a 1,000-pound fan 60 feet into the yard.
“The first thing I remember is the power going out and getting knocked down the stairwell,” he told the jury. “I felt a pressure on my shoulder and my head and there was a rumbling sound.”
That was the first part of what is typical of a deflagration, or subsonic explosion, as described by Orr. The second explosion in such circumstances is usually larger and more devastating.
“I saw an electrician fly out of a window into the parking lot,” Belcourt said. “You could see debris falling down from above … At that point I was thinking about everyone in the building, how to get them out and calling 911.”Read more
BURNS LAKE, B.C. — Though Kathleen Weissbach doesn't understand German, she can tell when her husband speaks to family back home about surviving the January 2012 explosion that flattened the Burns Lake sawmill.
"I knew exactly when he was talking about the mill explosion because his legs and his arms would just start shaking," said Kathleen of Dirk Weissbach, one of 19 who lived through the Babine Forest Products disaster.
Just minutes before the 8 p.m. blast tore the roof off, Dirk was relieved from break by Carl Charlie, who died that night. His other co-worker Robert Luggi was the second victim, and the two are the focus of the coroner's inquest that started this week in the small town of about 2,000 people.
The 49-year-old's years-long recovery was difficult for both of them.
In the beginning, it was because Kathleen was thrust in the position of caregiver for Dirk, who suffered four broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a concussion, back trauma, and second-degree burns to his face, neck and ear.
"It was a whole role reversal," she said, adding the road to recovery was long after he emerged from three days of induced coma.
She still remembers the night sweats that soaked the sheet so thoroughly that she'd thought Dirk had wet the bed. She helped him go to the bathroom, bathe and drove him to every appointment.
"Your life is in chaos," Kathleen said. "We've had so many different levels of normal. The first normal was coming home and acknowledging all of his injuries, PTSD and everything. Then you learn to live with that."
Often, she said, the effects of trauma on the families of victims is forgotten.
"It was like pushing a wheelbarrow full of cement. You just have to keep on going," she said, adding it helped living in Francois Lake where they were separated from the grief in Burns Lake.
"It was something we talked about, but it wasn't something that we dwelled on."Read more
BURNABY, B.C. – As the coroner’s inquest into the Babine Forest Products mill explosion begins Monday, the United Steelworkers (USW) is reiterating its call for a full, public inquiry into the tragic sawmill disasters that killed four workers and injured dozens more.
The Steelworkers, represented by legal counsel, will be participating in the Babine inquest to press for changes to regulatory practices by various government agencies to ensure the health and safety of workers is paramount.
“This is an incredibly challenging and emotional time for the victims of the Babine explosion and their families. From the moment this tragedy struck, we have worked closely with the local community to rebuild lives that were torn apart,” says Stephen Hunt, USW District 3 Director.
“We join with family groups and many others in asking Premier Christy Clark to fulfill her promise of justice and closure for victims, families and forest workers through a public inquiry.”
Nearly 11,000 British Columbians have signed a USW petition demanding a public inquiry into the Babine and Lakeland sawmill explosions. The petition is available at www.usw.ca/inquiry.
For further information:
Stephen Hunt, USW Director, 604-816-2554
Brad West, USW Communications, 604-313-9185, firstname.lastname@example.org
Adjournment of Coroner’s Inquest into Lakeland Mills Explosion to consider “new evidence” only furthers need for a public inquiry
By Michael Hager, Globe and Mail
The coroner's inquest in Prince George, B.C., called to provide answers into two 2012 disasters that killed four people, was adjourned indefinitely Wednesday after inquest counsel John Orr said it would take several weeks to review the new evidence, which includes "dozens and dozens of interviews" with workers and management.
While preparing investigations into two deadly sawmill blasts that it eventually botched, WorkSafeBC turned down access to a months-long probe by one of the mills' owners and then did not tell an ongoing inquest about the existence of this extensive hidden evidence, the lead lawyer for the provincial coroners service says.Read more
BURNABY, B.C., 23 March 2015 – The United Steelworkers (USW) has announced that it is withdrawing from the Coroner’s Inquest into the explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George, B.C.
USW District 3 Director Stephen Hunt says the union has lost confidence that the inquest will answer the many outstanding questions that remain.
On April 14, 2014, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe released a statement promising that the inquest would provide the families of workers who died, as well as injured workers and the entire community, with a thorough review of the causes and contributing factors of the explosion, including: how and why the explosion happened; the roles and responsibilities of those involved in mill safety and their policies and practices; and what steps can and should be taken to prevent this type of event from happening again.Read more
BY GORDON HOEKSTRA, VANCOUVER SUN
Two of the former top guns at WorkSafeBC are not scheduled to testify at a coroner's inquest into the Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion that killed two workers in 2012.
The United Steelworkers union says its request was rejected to have former WorkSafeBC president and CEO David Anderson and former vice-president in charge of investigations Donna Wilson called as witnesses. The inquest, overseen by chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, began Monday in Prince George.Read more