A 43-year-old shift supervisor suffered fatal injuries when a Prince George sawmill exploded in what the coroners’ service described as a “giant fireball” on Monday night.
The B.C Coroners Service has confirmed that Alan Little of Prince George was the sole fatality in the explosion and fire at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George at about 9:45 p.m. on Monday
Mr. Little was taken to the University Hospital of Northern BC immediately after the blast, but died there several hours later at 5:30 p.m.
John Neilson, a forklift operator who was working the shift when the explosion occurred, remembered Mr. Little fondly, as a former laborer who had become a supervisor in the last two to three years. He said Mr. Little was married, but did not believe he had any children.
“He was a down-to-earth person, easy to get along with,” said Mr. Neilson.
“Everybody is in shock and disbelief,” said Frank Everitt, president of the regional United Steelworkers local. “Nobody has got a handle on what happened. They just know there was a huge explosion and it was heard kilometres away from the facility.
“The explosion happened and walls were taken down and flooring erupted underneath folks that were in the lunchroom. Subsequently they all got out.”
Mr. Everitt said the tragedy was especially sobering because it came after a January explosion that killed two workers at the Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, about 230 kilometres northwest of Prince George.
“I said after Burns Lake I didn’t want to see anything like this ever again,” said Mr. Everitt.
But he said now that he won’t speculate on causes before the inevitable investigations have provided answers. The fire at Burns Lake remains under investigation, and no cause has been confirmed. Workers are worried, said Mr. Everitt.
“There is the overall concern for folks who work in the forest industry because we have had one and now we have had a second one. Certainly the emotions are there, and people are saying `We have to find the cause and make sure this doesn’t happen.’”
In an update, the Northern Health Authority disclosed that four patients injured in the. explosion – described by a B.C. coroner’s service statement as a “giant fireball” – and subsequent fire at the Lakeland Sawmill have been transferred by air ambulance from Prince George – three to Vancouver, one to Victoria and one to Edmonton.
Six patients remain at the university hospital in serious condition. Thirteen have been treated and released.
Donita Kuzma, the regional coroner for the Northern Region, said all workers have been accounted for, and none are missing at the facility, located on a square-kilometre property. The fire has consumed a main mill on the property, but a nearby planer mill is untouched.
According to Sinclar Group Forest Products, which owns the mill, there were 24 employees working in the sawmill at the time of the incident, with a further 16 employees in the adjoining planer mill and four working in the mill’s yard.
Premier Christy Clark offered the provinces’ support to Prince George, referring, in particular, to the family of the worker who died from his injuries.
She also paid tribute to Prince George for its response to the disaster.
“Emergency officials managed to keep the fire from spreading under extremely adverse conditions, neighbours rushed onto the scene to offer their assistance and health officials worked through the night treating the injured,” Ms. Clark said in a statement.
“I want Mayor Shari Green to know that her city has the full support of our government as they persevere through this terrible time.”
RCMP Corporal Craig Douglass said Tuesday morning that firefighters were making some advances on the fire.
“Firefighters are ahead of where they thought they would be in terms of the fire being extinguished,” said Cpl. Douglass, adding in the hours after the Monday night explosion crews had thought it would take 24 hours to control the fire.
“Now it is being extinguished more quickly than expected,” he said.
He said there was no immediate prospect of sending in investigators to begin trying to figure out what happened.
“Because of all the elements inside the sawmill, including compressed gases and sawmill dust, some things could be difficult to put out, but the best case is we’re able to put it out today.”
Ms. Kuzma said the investigation will involve the coroners’ service, the Prince George fire department, the RCMP and WorkSafeBC.
“This will take time to investigate, months. It’s just the complexity of the investigation,” said Ms. Kuzma, who was among the coroners’ staff investigating the January explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, about 230 kilometres northwest of Prince George.
No cause has been determined for the Burns Lake incident, which left 250 workers without jobs.
“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