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B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, left, and Ken Michell, who was injured in the Babine mill explosion, head to a press conference at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on Wednesday, March 6, 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, left, and Ken Michell, who was injured in the Babine mill explosion, head to a press conference at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on Wednesday, March 6, 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Babine mill blast survivors, families say inquiry rejection leaves questions unanswered Add to ...

Shattered survivors of the Babine mill explosion sat in the public gallery of the B.C. Legislature, listening to Premier Christy Clark reject their call for an independent inquiry into the incident that left two workers dead and 19 others badly injured.

Maureen Luggi, whose husband Robert died in the inferno on Jan. 20, 2012, says the fact that no charges will be laid against the mill’s owners has left her family, and others in the community, with too many unanswered questions.

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“My husband went to work in an unsafe workplace,” she told reporters Thursday. “Our families will never be the same. I want the truth to come out.” Ms. Luggi was flanked by survivors and their families who described the catastrophic blast, and the past two years of heart-wrenching struggles to put their lives back together.

In Question Period, Opposition Leader Adrian Dix repeated the families’ call for an independent inquiry. Although a coroner’s inquest will be conducted to look at the two deaths at the sawmill, he said that won’t answer how the agency responsible for workplace safety, WorkSafeBC, botched the sawmill investigation, nor does he expect it to ensure other mill workers are safe.

Ms. Clark, however, told the House she is treating the matter urgently, and promised changes will be made at WorkSafeBC.

“My view is that in order to make sure that we can ensure that this never happens again, we need to get on with fixing the problems that exist at WorkSafeBC. We need to do it now. And we are getting on with that so we can make sure that families like the Luggis and other families who were affected can know that no other families will go through what they have.”

Mr. Dix dismissed her commitment. “Pious words without action are empty words,” he said.

The government argues that an inquiry wouldn’t change anything because efforts are already being made to improve worker safety, including tougher regulations.

Mr. Dix said the entire worker safety system in B.C. has been brought into question because WorkSafeBC’s enforcement measures failed.

The explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill was blamed on a buildup of combustible dust, and WorkSafeBC concluded that the mill’s owners were responsible for the “preventable” incident.

However, the Criminal Justice Branch refused to press charges, saying the investigation was not properly conducted and some evidence would be inadmissible.

Theresa Michell, whose husband, Ken, was severely injured when he was trapped in the flaming mill, said that outcome gives no closure to the workers and their families. “We have been suffering for over two years. I almost lost my husband. The doctor said he had 24 hours to live. My husband was a good, hard worker. He just went to work and the mill blew up.

“I felt like a truck hit me. I prayed, I said, ‘God if you hear me, help him.’ Now I care for him like a little baby. Somebody has to be accountable for what happened.”

Just months after the Babine explosion, a second mill exploded in eerily similar fashion. Two men died at the Lakeland Mills fire in Prince George. Ronda Roche, whose husband, Glenn, was one of the workers killed in that blast, joined the Babine families in Victoria to support their demands. “The survivors have endured what can only be described as a nightmare,” she said.

WorkSafeBC has also recommended charges be laid in that case, but the Criminal Justice Branch has not yet announced its decision. “I'm trying to be optimistic,” she said. “I’m hoping for justice for my husband, Glenn, and for the others.”

Since the two catastrophic explosions, the province has established new regulations to require better cleanup of combustible dust in sawmills, and WorkSafeBC has conducted a series of inspection blitzes. In a report this week, the agency concluded that safety has improved, yet almost half of the sawmills were not in compliance.

Ms. Roche said that is not good enough. “Why has it taken two years to see any enforcement? When will safety outweigh profit?”

Read on for personal stories of families affected by the explosions.

CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ken Michell, 57

Ken Michell was not expected to live due to his severe burns. He is confined to a wheelchair.

“It’s hard to talk about it, I live it over and over, every night.

“That night on the main floor, we were cutting green wood. I had stopped my machine and was walking away when there was an orange flame and explosions: boom, boom. I squatted behind my machine. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I thought I could ride it out. I couldn’t. It was getting too hot. I turned sideways and stood up – the blast melted my face. I was tossed around like a ragdoll. With the pressure from the flames I got sucked up 15, 20 feet. When I fell, I tried to turn from the heat but it was everywhere.

“I had flames coming out of my hardhat. I looked up – I don’t know if you people are religious or Christian, but this is God’s honest truth what I say, this is true: I was on all fours, like this. I yelled out to God, ‘Turn it off!’ I had nowhere to go, there was fire everywhere. I was literally burning. As soon as I said that, the flames all went back down to the basement.

“Then, one of the board edger operators started calling for help. I put my coat back on and walked over to help. There were electrical wires hanging down; I was wondering if it was live or not, but I knew I was burned bad so I thought, if it is live, then I go quick.

“I pushed them out of the way and jumped down beside him and asked what was the matter. There was fire everywhere, but I knew that mill like the back of my hands. I’ve been there since ’75, off and on. I said, ‘Come on.’”

They managed to crawl out, but Mr. Michell remembers little after that. He was in a coma for six weeks. “When I came out, my eyeballs were the only thing I could move. This was more scary than the fire. I couldn’t wiggle my toes.”

With rehabilitation therapy, he can now lift his own coffee and feed himself, but he relies on his wife, Theresa, to care for him, and he has still not been able to move home – work is under way to adapt it for his wheelchair. He had been nearing retirement age, and he and Theresa had talked about getting motorcycles and riding across Canada. He doubts his legs will support that now. Ms. Michell, holding his hand as he told his story, said: “I am more of a nurse to him than his wife.”

CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Robert Luggi Jr., 47

Robert Luggi Jr. was killed in the blast. His widow, Maureen, told his story:

“The last time I saw him was that morning. I was gone at work all day. I was sobbing, and I couldn’t understand why. But he had been making calls to everyone in the last few days – he called his mom, he called our son Robert at university. It almost seemed like these were his moments of saying his goodbyes. My younger son came home from school and Robert made him dinner and then he went to work at 5 o’clock.

“I understand the water lines were frozen that day, the fans were not working, it was extremely cold and the employees on the A shift that ended at 4 o’clock could smell gas.

“At 7:30 p.m., my husband texted me when I arrived home from work. He said, ‘I love you, I’m glad that you made it home safely.’

“At 7:40, my husband, Robert, texted me and said, ‘Please pray for me, I’m going to check something out.’

“I prayed, of course. We did this every day. He had a fear I would die before him, so he would check to make sure I was safe. But I didn’t think much of it; he was the lead hand and was expected to help when there were problems. I never thought it could be something fatal.

“At 8:07, the mill exploded.”

His remains would be found in the basement of the mill, 48 hours later.

The pair had been married 22 years and have three children. Ms. Luggi said their last two years of marriage had been their best – he had taken

personal development courses to become a better father and husband. “It helped us reach a state of maturity. We were making plans for the future, for when we became empty nesters.”

For the past two years, Ms. Luggi has retreated from public life, to shield herself and her children. She did not attend the community event shortly after the explosion where Premier Christy Clark lit a candle of hope. But when Ms. Luggi learned the company’s owners would face no charges, she launched a petition demanding a public inquiry, which has more than 7,000 signatures.

“Our families will never be the same. I want the truth to come out. I will go to my grave requesting this.” She is inviting Ms. Clark to return to Burns Lake once more to explain why the Premier does not want an inquiry.

CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Dirk Weissbach, 47

Dirk Weissbach came to Canada 10 years ago, but couldn’t use his foreign qualifications as a millwright. He worked at the Babine mill for six years, having to work his way up from the bottom.

He was running the trim saw on a 10-hour shift the night of the blast.

“It was really cold, about 40 below.”

He went outside on a break just before 8 p.m. He called his wife, Kathleen, just minutes before the explosion, to tell her how bad conditions were because of frozen pipes in the mill. “There was no fire protection – everything was frozen but nothing was shut down.”

Then he went back in to work. “I was lucky, because I had just come in with my thick coat on, it had thick layers of cloth. I wasn’t back in my position. I hear a huge bang. I got hit by something, it hit my head, it broke my collar bone, broke all my ribs, wrecked my back. I am not sure if I was unconscious, but when I opened my eyes, there was nothing [to see]. I tried to go to my colleague on the other line; I tried to reach him but could not. So I tried to find a way out. I thought, ‘I will have to die here.’ I could hear people screaming in the basement for help. My helmet and safety glasses disintegrated in the heat. I would have been dead without my helmet. I’d be blind without my glasses.

“I laid down on the floor for a while. I was pretty hurt. Then I tried to find another way out. Behind me was a huge electrical panel, and behind that I found a hole in the wall where the building was just gone, and I jumped out on the rubble. They put me in a van and some lady brought me to the hospital. There was so much crying. It was harsh.”

He spent a week in intensive care and is still facing more surgery this spring. He cannot return to that work because he cannot lift any weight and cannot function in a confined space after being trapped in the inferno.

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