On Jan. 20, 2012, two workers were killed and 19 others badly hurt in an explosion at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C. Survivors of the inferno and the loved ones of its victims came to the B.C. Legislature on Thursday, where Premier Christy Clark rejected their plea for an independent inquiry.
These are the stories of some of the survivors, in their own words. These interviews have been edited and condensed.
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Ken Michell, 57
Ken Michell was not expected to live due to his severe burns. He is confined to a wheelchair.
“It’s hard to talk about it, I live it over and over, every night.
“That night on the main floor, we were cutting green wood. I had stopped my machine and was walking away when there was an orange flame and explosions: boom, boom. I squatted behind my machine. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I thought I could ride it out. I couldn’t. It was getting too hot. I turned sideways and stood up – the blast melted my face. I was tossed around like a ragdoll. With the pressure from the flames I got sucked up 15, 20 feet. When I fell, I tried to turn from the heat but it was everywhere.
“I had flames coming out of my hardhat. I looked up – I don’t know if you people are religious or Christian, but this is God’s honest truth what I say, this is true: I was on all fours, like this. I yelled out to God, ‘Turn it off!’ I had nowhere to go, there was fire everywhere. I was literally burning. As soon as I said that, the flames all went back down to the basement.
“Then, one of the board edger operators started calling for help. I put my coat back on and walked over to help. There were electrical wires hanging down; I was wondering if it was live or not, but I knew I was burned bad so I thought, if it is live, then I go quick.
“I pushed them out of the way and jumped down beside him and asked what was the matter. There was fire everywhere, but I knew that mill like the back of my hands. I’ve been there since ’75, off and on. I said, ‘Come on.’”
They managed to crawl out, but Mr. Michell remembers little after that. He was in a coma for six weeks. “When I came out, my eyeballs were the only thing I could move. This was more scary than the fire. I couldn’t wiggle my toes.”
With rehabilitation therapy, he can now lift his own coffee and feed himself, but he relies on his wife, Theresa, to care for him, and he has still not been able to move home – work is under way to adapt it for his wheelchair. He had been nearing retirement age, and he and Theresa had talked about getting motorcycles and riding across Canada. He doubts his legs will support that now. Ms. Michell, holding his hand as he told his story, said: “I am more of a nurse to him than his wife.”
Robert Luggi Jr., 47
Robert Luggi Jr. was killed in the blast. His widow, Maureen, told his story:
“The last time I saw him was that morning. I was gone at work all day. I was sobbing, and I couldn’t understand why. But he had been making calls to everyone in the last few days – he called his mom, he called our son Robert at university. It almost seemed like these were his moments of saying his goodbyes. My younger son came home from school and Robert made him dinner and then he went to work at 5 o’clock.
“I understand the water lines were frozen that day, the fans were not working, it was extremely cold and the employees on the A shift that ended at 4 o’clock could smell gas.
“At 7:30 p.m., my husband texted me when I arrived home from work. He said, ‘I love you, I’m glad that you made it home safely.’
“At 7:40, my husband, Robert, texted me and said, ‘Please pray for me, I’m going to check something out.’
“I prayed, of course. We did this every day. He had a fear I would die before him, so he would check to make sure I was safe. But I didn’t think much of it; he was the lead hand and was expected to help when there were problems. I never thought it could be something fatal.
“At 8:07, the mill exploded.”
His remains would be found in the basement of the mill, 48 hours later.
The pair had been married 22 years and have three children. Ms. Luggi said their last two years of marriage had been their best – he had taken
personal development courses to become a better father and husband. “It helped us reach a state of maturity. We were making plans for the future, for when we became empty nesters.”
For the past two years, Ms. Luggi has retreated from public life, to shield herself and her children. She did not attend the community event shortly after the explosion where Premier Christy Clark lit a candle of hope. But when Ms. Luggi learned the company’s owners would face no charges, she launched a petition demanding a public inquiry, which has more than 7,000 signatures.
“Our families will never be the same. I want the truth to come out. I will go to my grave requesting this.” She is inviting Ms. Clark to return to Burns Lake once more to explain why the Premier does not want an inquiry.
Dirk Weissbach, 47
Dirk Weissbach came to Canada 10 years ago, but couldn’t use his foreign qualifications as a millwright. He worked at the Babine mill for six years, having to work his way up from the bottom.
He was running the trim saw on a 10-hour shift the night of the blast.
“It was really cold, about 40 below.”
He went outside on a break just before 8 p.m. He called his wife, Kathleen, just minutes before the explosion, to tell her how bad conditions were because of frozen pipes in the mill. “There was no fire protection – everything was frozen but nothing was shut down.”
Then he went back in to work. “I was lucky, because I had just come in with my thick coat on, it had thick layers of cloth. I wasn’t back in my position. I hear a huge bang. I got hit by something, it hit my head, it broke my collar bone, broke all my ribs, wrecked my back. I am not sure if I was unconscious, but when I opened my eyes, there was nothing [to see]. I tried to go to my colleague on the other line; I tried to reach him but could not. So I tried to find a way out. I thought, ‘I will have to die here.’ I could hear people screaming in the basement for help. My helmet and safety glasses disintegrated in the heat. I would have been dead without my helmet. I’d be blind without my glasses.
“I laid down on the floor for a while. I was pretty hurt. Then I tried to find another way out. Behind me was a huge electrical panel, and behind that I found a hole in the wall where the building was just gone, and I jumped out on the rubble. They put me in a van and some lady brought me to the hospital. There was so much crying. It was harsh.”
He spent a week in intensive care and is still facing more surgery this spring. He cannot return to that work because he cannot lift any weight and cannot function in a confined space after being trapped in the inferno.