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.
"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.