The explosion and fire lit up the Prince George sky at 9:38 p.m. Within a minute came the first 911 call. More than 100 emergency-response calls would ensue in the next hour and a half, from workers on site trying to help the injured, to residents who mistakenly believed other buildings around the city were ablaze.
A timeline of events obtained by The Globe and Mail sheds light on the chaos immediately following last week’s sawmill explosion at Lakeland Mills Ltd., as well as the rapid response from emergency officials.
The timeline – released by the RCMP, at the newspaper’s request – shows Mounties and fire officials were dispatched at 9:40. RCMP arrived at the scene three minutes later. Fire and Rescue arrived three minutes after that.
The blast – which has been described as “a gigantic fireball” – burned so intensely that, from different vantage points, it appeared other buildings around the city were on fire. Fire personnel were also dispatched to the Coast Hotel and an apartment building after receiving reports that, from a distance, they too looked as though they were hit by flames. They were not.
At 9:49, a 911 caller requested immediate medical attention for six or seven people at the mill site. One minute later, a caller walking out of the mill met emergency responders. A Code Orange was called by Northern Health at 10 p.m.
At 10:11, RCMP advised that they believed 20 to 30 people were injured. A triage unit was set up at the east side of the mill about half an hour later.
Ten people were believed to be in hospital at 11:01, according to the timeline. Eleven more were set to be transported to hospital at 11:07.
At 11:11, a 911 call was made by someone who believed debris from the blast landed on their chimney. Three minutes later, RCMP located two people – a man and woman – trying to jump railway tracks to get near the intense flames.
At 11:40, emergency officials believed everyone was accounted for.
Twenty-four people were sent to hospital in all. Two died.
RCMP spokesman Corporal Craig Douglass cautioned the timeline could still be subject to revision as more information comes in.
The RCMP’s operational communications centre received 37 calls to 911 between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. It received 129 calls between 10 and 11. Between 11 and midnight, the number of calls dropped to 22. Of course, not all of those calls were related to the fire.
An exact cause of the explosion and fire has not been determined. It occurred three months after a similar blast at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake killed two men and injured 19.
Workers, industry experts and the news media have for months pointed to the cutting of wood harvested from forests ravaged by the mountain pine beetle as a possible explanation. The wood produces a fine, dry sawdust that is more susceptible to explosions than the normal, wetter timber.
All sawmills in the province were ordered by WorkSafeBC last week to review the build-up of sawdust at their operations.
WorkSafeBC officials refused interview requests Monday.
In an e-mail, the agency said its officers will be at sawmills now through the next two weeks. It could not say whether any problems or violations have been spotted at other mills since the clean-up directive went out.
WorkSafeBC said it is aware of media reports regarding other explosions at other sawmills in the past, but said any records must be requested through freedom of information. It said an investigation into one incident is nearing completion but did not provide further details.
Margaret MacDiarmid, B.C.’s Labour Minister, said Monday she has not received any early reports from WorkSafeBC on its 341 mill inspections now under way. She said she expects WorkSafeBC to release a preliminary report early this week on what has and has not been ruled out in the Burns Lake explosion.
Ms. MacDiarmid said no decision has been made about creating regulations around unsafe levels of combustible dust.
“There is a level that is known from a respiratory point of view. From a combustion point of view, it depends on a whole host of conditions in the mills, so it’s difficult to say an amount of dust,” she said. “Will there be a new regulation? I don’t know, because it really will depend on what caused the two tragedies.”
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria