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A large fire burns at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., on Tuesday April 24, 2012. An explosion rocked the sawmill just before 10 p.m. local time setting off a fire that engulfed the facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Johnson (ANDREW JOHNSON/Andrew Johnson/The Canadian Press)
A large fire burns at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., on Tuesday April 24, 2012. An explosion rocked the sawmill just before 10 p.m. local time setting off a fire that engulfed the facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Johnson (ANDREW JOHNSON/Andrew Johnson/The Canadian Press)

'Down-to-earth' supervisor dies after 'giant fireball' explosion at B.C. sawmill Add to ...

“I’d like to prepare the public for the fact that this will take time to investigate - months. It’s just the complexity of the investigation, search and experts needed to go through the site,” she said.

The president of the Sinclar Group said they would not immediately speculate on the cause of the incident until an ongoing investigation is completed. “We’re devastated by the news of this incident,” Greg Stewart said in a statement.

Colleagues at the sawmill scrambled to help each other, with one saying he used scissors to cut charred clothing off those whose burned skin was dripping.

“It was quite gruesome,” said Brian Croy, first vice-president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-424, in an interview from his home.

“When you walk out, there was guys with their skin hanging off their arms and stuff from being burned.”

Mr. Croy said he was among six people inside the mill’s lunchroom talking about training when the explosion happened.

“That thing came up so fast, so quick. I don’t know where it came from, but it was almost like a cannon going off. It blew through there. It ended just that quick,” he said.

He said the explosion knocked the lunchroom’s plywood walls down on top of him, but there was a little bit of space between him and the collapsed wall.

The mill’s lights remained on, but dark smoke engulfed him and he had to put a coat over his face so he could breathe.

“I thought: ‘This is it.’ I consciously stuck my face in my coat, eh, and it (the smoke) went away.”

He and his coworkers got out through the gap in the outside wall created by the explosion. Behind them, smaller explosions went off.

“It’s almost like you were coming out of the war zone. Everything was levelled. I met that one fellow. I think his fingers were blown off, and his clothing, a lot of it was gone. It was burned off and his hair.”

Mr. Croy said he asked the injured co-worker to follow him and others to a first-aid station, located outside the mill and near a planer.

At the first-aid station, injured workers were sitting on a tarp, holding up their burned arms and hands, he said. Some were moaning but others were in shock and were quiet.

One worker, suffering from burns, refused to sit on a chair, said Mr. Croy, because the injuries were less painful if he stood up and bounced around.

Another worker lay on the tarp naked, without any hair and burned black.

Mr. Croy said paramedics set up an ambulance station, and he drove a few people to hospital before dropping by the office and then heading home to his wife and grandson.

It took a while, but Mr. Croy said he has calmed down and quit shaking.

“The explosion was catastrophic,” said RCMP Cpl. Craig Douglass early in the evening.

“They’re throwing water on it but I don’t think it’s going to be one we can win.”

The explosion shattered a quiet evening for Glen Thielmann, who was reading bedtime stories to his kids when the blast occurred.

“It rocked the house and sucked the window shut.”

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Thielmann walked down the block to join his neighbours, who were watching the flames in the distance consume the mill.

Mr. Thielmann said he lives about two kilometres away from the mill site. He estimated the flames had shot more than 60 metres into the air. Hours later, clouds and steam were still pouring from the mill.

Sirens screamed through the night and the air smelled of wood smoke, he said.

Andrew Johnson, 30, a web designer and a photographer, said he lives about five kilometres from the mill.

“I actually felt the windows shake and the house shake from the initial explosion,” he said.

“It was interesting because it felt like there was a really big gust of wind that kind of just shook all of the windows in the house. So it kind of just caught you off-guard because you didn’t expect it and it didn’t seem like there was any wind outside.”

He said he could see the orange fire and smoke in the sky.

“I can’t tell what caused the explosion,” said Mr. Croy. “All I know is that there was no warning, no nothing, because we’d walked through the mill and stuff to come up to that lunchroom and didn’t smell no gas, no nothing.

“So I couldn’t say it was gas.”

According to the company website, about 170 people work at the facility. The sawmill and planer mill complex includes a hot oil energy system for drying lumber.

The website said the mill’s primary products are premier-grade, kiln-dried studs. The mill also supplies fibre for two bio-energy systems.

With files from The Canadian Press

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