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The Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George April 25, 2012 after a fire and explosion at the mill.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

An electrician who survived a fire at a sawmill in Prince George, B.C., has described a scene of chaos after the facility's beams began to shake and a massive explosion erupted, killing two workers.

"I blinked and then the whole damned world was different," Don Zwozdesky told a coroner's inquest Tuesday.

He said a ball of fire at Lakeland Mills knocked him onto the catwalk. When he and a co-worker tried to escape, a door wouldn't budge because the sawdust had piled so high.

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They found another door and got outside, where they saw a compound littered with "campfires" of burning debris.

For reasons he can't explain, Zwozdesky said one of his first moves was to go to his locker to get his tools because he believed that "somehow I had to fix this."

But when Zwozdesky got there, he decided to go back outside and heard Glenn Roche, one of the two men who would die from his injuries, yelling for help.

Zwozdesky said he told Roche to walk towards him and to follow the beam from his flashlight.

Roche emerged from the darkness in pain, with another co-worker behind him.

"He said, 'I'm still on fire, man, I'm still on fire,"' Zwozdesky said.

"I checked and I said, 'No, you're not.' And he said, `Well, check again, I'm on fire, I can feel it."'

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Zwozdesky guided a badly burned and largely unclothed Roche to a spot outside where he sat down and started shaking profusely.

Zwozdesky said he became frustrated as he tried to get the attention of rescue personnel.

"I thought, 'For crying out loud, can't you give (him) a blanket?"

Roche insisted Zwozdesky take him to hospital in his truck but Zwozdesky was reluctant. However, Roche was identified as a priority victim and rushed to hospital in a fire chief's sport utility vehicle after he was put on a stretcher.

The inquest has heard Roche, who died at the University of Alberta Hospital two days later, suffered burns to 95 per cent of his body.

According to a WorkSafeBC report, the source of the fire was an accumulation of wood dust.

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At the time, Roche was using compressed air to clean the sawdust off the machinery.

"He said, 'I was blowing down, I was just blowing down, and the thing blew up,"' Zwozdesky said.

When the inquest began Monday, witnesses said Roche was concerned that following an explosion at Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake three months earlier, Lakeland would be next.

"He sat in his booth and he could see the management windows up there and he'd point his finger and rattle off a bunch of things," Zwozdesky said.

"He said, 'You watch, this place is going to bloody blow up."

Zwozdesky said cleanup around the mill was so poor that on the night of the explosion, one of the hydrants was blocked to the point where firefighters could not use it.

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Alan Little, the other man who died, was a supervisor at the mill.

On Wednesday, the Opposition New Democrats called on the government to provide funding for lawyers who could help represent victims of the blast.

NDP labour critic Shane Simpson said the inquest room is packed with lawyers representing the company, union and the coroners service, but the witnesses are testifying without the benefit of legal help.

"These people were the victims of an explosion, we cannot allow them to become the victims of an inquest," he said.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton said the coroners service has lawyers to ensure evidence is properly called.

Prince George Citizen

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