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British Columbia Victims’ families, survivors wait for charges against sawmill owners

Ronda Roche sat by her husband's hospital bed on the night of April 23, 2012. He was in an induced coma, most of his body burned after an explosion ripped through the Prince George sawmill two hours earlier. "Why did you have to be right this time?" she asked him.

Glenn Roche died the next day. Now, almost two years later, Ms. Roche hopes to hear the answer when she meets on Monday with officials from the Criminal Justice Branch who will tell the survivors of the blast and the families of the two men who died there whether the mill's owners will be charged.

Glenn had complained – to his wife, to co-workers, and to management – about unsafe working conditions at the mill. "Some days he didn't want to go to work," she recalled in an interview.

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Ronda is bracing for disappointment on Monday. She wants the company to be charged for the deaths of Glenn and Alan Little, and for the 22 injured workers. But the Crown has rejected charges against the owners of another mill in Burns Lake that exploded three months earlier, saying WorkSafeBC botched the investigation. She fears that will happen again.

There is little reason to expect that the same investigative techniques would yield a different result here.

Glenn Roche worked at Lakeland for 30 years, starting as a teenager on the cleanup crew. When he died, he held a senior position as the headrig operator. He was at his station at the time of the explosion, cleaning the massive saw when he should have been off on a break. It was futile – the mill was so thick with sawdust that many workers wore dust masks.

After the Babine Forest Products mill exploded in January, 2012, killing two workers, Glenn believed the Lakeland mill was also at risk. Both mills were running full-out to process pine beetle-killed wood, and he believed sawdust cleanup had taken a back seat to production.

Bruce Germyn saw it coming too.

"It was written – in a thick layer of dust," he said in an interview. "I said, 'If we don't clean up, we are going to blow up just like Babine,' " he told his managers. He bitterly recalled that they laughed in response.

Co-workers warned him he would be fired if he kept up his protests. With five children at home, Mr. Germyn showed up for work despite his worries.

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He should have been outside, having a smoke, when the blast occurred. But he'd offered to skip his break and keep the edger running while another worker went to a meeting in the lunchroom. To shut down production would cost the company hundreds of dollars for every minute of downtime, and the pressure was on to keep the edgers running.

At 9:38 p.m., the first explosion ripped through the mill. "There was a huge 'boom' and the whole building shook. I felt like I was in slow motion, there was a wall of fire coming at me – it is floor-to-ceiling. I just stood there and cried, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God.' "

He closed his eyes only when the fireball reached him. In the aftermath, the mill was thick with black smoke. He could see only embers wafting down. He braced for the next flash – he knew there would be more – but couldn't move. "I didn't think I was going to get out of the building."

A co-worker, seeking escape, spurred him into action. Climbing over flattened walls, they found their way out onto the log dock. He found some workers who had been outside and begged for water, then borrowed a cellphone to call home and reassure his daughter that he was alive. From there, his face burned beyond recognition and his legs seared from the flames, he coaxed another injured worker for a long walk across the parking lot to where they hoped to find an ambulance. "It was a war zone. It was hell. And it never needed to happen."

Ronda talked to her husband around 8:30 that night. "He would always phone home to say good night to our son." But he didn't call her later in the evening as he usually did. It was her first inkling that something was wrong. Instead, the relative of another mill worker phoned her, asking her if she knew about the fire. "I woke up my kid and drove down to the mill, the road was blocked. … So we went to the hospital." She waited 90 minutes before the doctors would let her see Glenn. "I knew it was him, but he didn't look so great. … They said he could maybe hear me, so I told him, 'I love you.' " She asked her question. Then she let their son Mason have a last look at his father.

A new mill is under construction to replace Lakeland. "I'm sure it will be top-of-the-line, probably the cleanest, safest mill you can walk into – which disgusts me," she said. "All this stuff should have been done before."

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The families from the Babine and Lakeland explosions gathered on Friday to talk about their mutual goal to win workplace safety reforms. "If we get nothing else," said Ronda, "we want someone to look back 10 years from now who can say they have this protection because we fought for it."

Follow me on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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