Residents of Burns Lake, B.C., rallied on the weekend to support the families of injured and missing workers after a powerful explosion Friday night levelled the Babine Forest Products sawmill – a tragedy wrapped up in fears for the future of the village without its main employer.
RCMP investigators hope to begin searching the site Monday for two missing men – Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr. – but they are waiting for a structural inspection before they can sift through the smouldering remains of the mill.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark joined Mr. Charlie’s parents on Sunday at a community hall to light candles for Carl, and in hopes that the sawmill will be rebuilt.
“It’s a tragedy in our community, for the families of the injured and the two that are missing,” Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold said Sunday.
“That is devastating enough for people. But then when they wake up and think, ‘Where is my job going to be?’ That has a whole other impact. It’s all gone. Where do they go?”
Mr. Strimbold on the weekend met with executives of the mill’s owners, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates. The company is a partner with Burns Lake Native Development Corp., which owns a minority stake in the mill.
Police spent the weekend interviewing workers about possible causes for the blast. But RCMP Constable Lesley Smith warned: “Rendering the site safe is going to take some time – the area of the fire is immense.”
The explosion ripped through the mill around 8 p.m. Friday, shortly after about 30 workers began the night shift. Constable Smith arrived less than an hour later to an eerie scene. “Where there used to be a massive structure, there was a leveled area with glowing embers.”
John Rustad, MLA for the region, visited the hospital on Sunday. Survivors told him they had no warning: The lights went out and before they could turn around, they were knocked flat by a fireball.
He said the province will first focus on providing help for the mill’s now-unemployed workers. But in the longer term, he hopes to be able to provide the owners with a solid economic case for rebuilding the mill. “A number of things need to happen and it’s going to take time,” Mr. Rustad said.
The mill opened in 1975, at the time an unheard-of co-operative venture between six first nations and a forest company. Roughly 100 of the mill’s 250 direct employees are first nations. Including the spin-off jobs, the mill accounts for about 40 per cent of the economy in Burns Lake, a village of 3,600 people about 200 kilometres west of Prince George.
Al Gerow, chief councillor of the Burns Lake Indian Band and president of Burns Lake Native Development Corp., said hope remains for the two missing men.
“As you can imagine, the families are going through a horrible trauma,” he said. “But they haven’t given up hope whatsoever. We look forward to bringing those individuals home.”
Mr. Gerow’s wife is MLA Carole James, who caught the first plane out of Victoria when she heard of the accident. The couple spent the weekend at a first nations community hall, which is being kept open around the clock to provide meals and counselling to workers and their families.
“People are still in shock,” Ms. James said. “I sat with someone who was there at the time – if you saw him you’d think he was a tough forestry guy. He was in tears, talking about seeing his colleagues running from the building, burning.”
Twelve workers remained in hospital on Sunday, including four who were airlifted to the burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital.
David Luggi headed for the mill as soon as he heard about the explosion, arriving to find it completely engulfed in flames. He said there is little doubt that his nephew, Robert Luggi Jr., was at work at the time of the explosion.
“We’re just like everybody else,” he said. “Waiting for the news, waiting to confirm it.”
He said a commitment from the company to rebuild would be “part of the healing process.”
Hampton Affiliates CEO Steve Zika flew in from Portland, Ore., on Saturday to meet with workers and survey the damage. Although some parts of the operation are intact, the main plant – worth anywhere from $25-million to $100-million – is simply gone.
“The bias, obviously, is to rebuild,” he said. “Who wouldn't want to? But until we get past the situation of our employees, there's just a lot of factors that go into that decision about whether to rebuild or not.”
With a report from The Canadian Press