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No warning signal heard before Shawnigan Lake gravel-pit blast

When they set the charge, the three workers who were injured in an explosion at Mid-Island Aggregates north of Victoria on Tuesday were expecting the debris to fly high in the air and fall harmlessly to earth, as they watched from a "safe zone" about 200 metres away.

Instead, when the explosives detonated, a shower of jagged rock came hurtling toward them like shrapnel from a bomb blast.

"The debris did not fly in an arcing pattern. The explosion was severe enough that it flew horizontally," said Peter Thiessen, the Shawnigan Lake company's chief financial officer. "That is not a normal situation."

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One of the victims, a 50-year-old woman who Mr. Thiessen said is not an employee of the company, lost her right arm in the blast. The other two, both men in their 40s, work full-time for Mid-Island Aggregates, he said. One suffered a serious head wound when a flying rock struck his hard hat, while the other man sustained minor injuries.

Vancouver Island Health Authority spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said the three victims arrived at Victoria General Hospital around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. One has since been released, while the other two remain in hospital in stable condition, Ms. Marshall said.

Officials with the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the agency responsible for investigating mining mishaps in the province – gravel pits and rock quarries are governed by provincial mining regulations – did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

However, several business owners in a commercial strip mall about a kilometre downhill from the gravel pit said Mid-Island Aggregates makes a habit of warning them when blasting is scheduled, but issued no such advisory this week.

"Normally they'll phone us the day before to tell us they'll be blasting, but this time they didn't, which is unusual," said Doug Nestor, who owns a Nutri-Lawn franchise in the mall.

Steve Cross, owner of South Shawnigan Auto & Marine a few doors away, said previous blasting in the gravel pit has been preceded by, and followed by, a warning signal he described as "three loud beeps," something that did not occur on Tuesday.

"When I didn't hear a beep before or after I knew something had gone wrong," said Mr. Cross, who was outside when the explosion occurred. "There was a big bang and the windows shook and then I saw this big mushroom-cloud of black smoke rising up on the hill. There's no way they planned that blast."

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Although debris reportedly flew as far as 400 metres, the workers were standing "closer to 200 metres" away, Mr. Thiessen said. The area where they stood was deemed to be a "safe zone," in compliance with provincial regulations, he added.

However, he refused to comment on suggestions that the explosives detonated prematurely or explain why the company failed to issue its usual blasting advisories.

Mid-Island Aggregates is co-operating with the province's investigation and has also launched an internal probe into the incident, "which includes retaining engineering professionals to help … determine what happened," Mr. Thiessen said.

WorkSafe BC communications director Donna Freeman said the agency is not involved in the investigation because "we don't have jurisdiction over workplace accidents that take place in mines." She added: "We attended the site yesterday along with provincial mining officials and it was quickly determined they have jurisdiction."

Media were prohibited from entering the site to view the damage on Wednesday.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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