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Frustration mounts over Burns Lake mill blast

Twenty-seven-year-old Vinh Nguyen pauses for a moment as he speaks to The Canadian Press in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

A Burns Lake sawmill levelled by a massive blast had been plagued by unusually large buildups of dust, and small sawdust-fuelled explosions, a veteran worker at the facility says.

Bruce Disher said he had set off several small dust explosions while welding inside the mill, adding that he does not know if those incidents are related to the much larger explosion and fire that destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill on Friday, killing two men and injuring 19.

"I'm not a scientist, and whether the dust could have set off something of that magnitude, I don't know," Mr. Disher said on Monday. "But there was a fair amount of dust in the air for the last couple of years because of the dry wood we've been cutting.

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"I have had small dust explosions, myself. So if you can have small ones, you can probably have big ones."

He said much of the dry wood was timber salvaged from area forests ravaged by the pine beetle.

Mr. Disher speculated that during cold winter weather, the mill is more closed in, without fans sucking out the dust.

"The wood we've been cutting for the last three to four years is 90 per cent dry wood. It's really dry. So the dust factor is phenomenal," he said.

The 31-year employee stressed that he was not an expert, but searching like everyone else for an explanation of what could have caused the kind of explosion that is rare or unheard of at a B.C. sawmill.

Frank Everitt, president of Local 1-424 of the United Steelworkers, which represents the Babine sawmill workers, says he has never seen a mill go up like that.

"Absolutely not. We have fires within mills, but never anything as drastic as this," Mr. Everitt said.

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While agreeing that dry wood produces more dust, the local president discounted the suggestion that a dust buildup could have sparked the explosion. "I leave that to the experts, but in my limited experience, I just can't see that's anywhere near the possibilities."

Hampton Affiliates, the mill's owners, did not return calls, but in a statement on Monday, Hampton CEO Steve Zika said: "At this time our focus is on caring for our injured and grieving employees. We are not speculating on the cause of the accident and will let the proper authorities complete their investigation."

Mr. Zika has been in Burns Lake since the weekend.

MLA Carole James attended a tense two-hour meeting between company executives and mill workers on Monday afternoon in a Burns Lake church hall.

"People are very angry," she said. "They want to know why this happened, they want to know when they will have their jobs back. They are worried about paying their rent."

Anger and frustration are also growing in the close-knit community over the slow search for those missing in the blast.

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The remains of the second of the two victims were uncovered in the debris of the sawmill late on Monday.

A statement issued jointly by the RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service said the identities of the victims have yet to be confirmed. "Because of the devastating nature of the fire and explosion, further testing will be required to confirm identification," the statement said.

Robert Luggi Jr. and Carl Charlie have been missing since the explosion.

Chief Wilf Adam of Babine Lake Nation said mill workers have told him that Mr. Charlie survived the blast, but went back into the burning building to help rescue other employees.

"He was a very helpful, outgoing person," Chief Adam said. "He was in there, he got out, but he ran back in to help. That's what his fellow employees are telling me."

RCMP Constable Lesley Smith explained that the extent of the devastation was challenging for searchers.

"We have to take into account there was a huge explosion, it sent people flying out of lunchrooms, people were running for their lives."

The huge mill is reduced to rubble piled up in what was once the basement and even now fresh fires are still breaking out.

Mr. Disher, the welder, who was off shift when the explosion occurred, said his son-in-law and nephew were injured.

His son-in-law has been unable to sleep for the past few nights, traumatized by what he saw, he said. "He saw people come out of the building, totally engulfed by flames, screaming."

He survived thanks to being inside a large piece of machinery.

"He didn't even hear the bang," Mr. Disher said. "He just got blown … down into the conveyor. Everything was instantly black and water was pouring down on top of him. His arm was jammed inside cables and pipes.

"He had to crawl up the conveyor, drop six or seven feet, fall into the burner conveyor and crawl out."

The loss of the sawmill is devastating to Burns Lake and the local First Nations band, which has a stake in the operation, with many of its members working there.

Steve Hunt, District 3 director of the Steelworkers, said he was not aware of any serious safety concerns at the mill. "Nobody can ever recall an explosion like this at a mill before."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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