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Survivors Speak at Mill Inquest

Approximately 50 people were on hand as survivors shared the stories on day 3 of the Babine Forest Products Sawmill inquest.

Ryan Belcourt was first to speak. He had been a mill supervisor for only four months at the time of the explosion on January 20th, 2012.

He says he remembers the power going off and being “knocked out” before regaining consciousness and evacuating the building.

From there, he radioed other workers, helped them to safety, and called 911. Although distressed, Belcourt walked away uninjured.

He recalls extremely cold temperatures that week, which caused valves to crack, saw lubrication to freeze, and the misters to breakdown. Windows were also closed, some even boarded shut, to keep workers warm. Mountain Pine Beetle infested logs were also coming in, and cutting the dead, dry wood added to dust levels.

All these factors could’ve contributed to the air’s dryness and equipment’s temperatures within the plant.

Belcourt also says conditions within the facility were visibly hazy and workers had to wear masks. Other survivors even said there were days when the haze was too thick to see across the plant.

He said the company had planned to address the factory’s dust issue in February 2012, a month after the explosion.

Vinh Nguyen was a quality control worker on site on January 20th. He suffered first and second-degree burns to his hands and face when the explosion engulfed his office. He was one of the first people to be hospitalized. Nguyen said he saw a “smolder fire” approximately once a shift in the week’s leading up to the explosion.

Ryan Clay worked at the plant for 11 years prior to the explosion, starting when he was just 16 years old. He says he had worked in every position of the plant.

He and Robert Luggi worked together as Lead Hand trainees on the night of the explosion. Clay said the two were “pretty much partners” at work.

Clay was texting his now-wife about their upcoming Mexico trip when the explosion overtook his office.

The burst collapsed the ceiling and pinned him to the ground. He said he could see his hand melting, and used his elbows to escape the debris. He then jumped through a 15-foot-high opening in his office wall to safety.

Instead of going to Mexico, Clay spent the next three weeks in an Edmonton hospital.

Clay said that there were many quality concerns within the plant. While some issues were addressed, like Clay’s request to clean the plant the day before the explosion, some were not. From hearsay, Clay said a co-worker was suspended when he complained about having to work in temperatures he felt were too cold. This left a “big impact” on worker’s thoughts about addressing safety issues.

Nick Erikson was working at the plant on the night of the explosion and knew both Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie well: Erikson and Luggi would often talk about being step-fathers and he and Charlie were cousins.

Erikson moved from working inside the plant to an outdoor railcar position in September 2011 when he become concerned about air quality. He said the air inside the plant would give him headaches and stuff his sinuses.

Erikson said that only “brave souls” would bring up safety concerns, fearing a work refusal would hurt his career. He also said there was too much sawdust for cleaning crews to keep up.

A few things were parallel among each of these four survivors: all were concerned about dust in the plant but for respiratory and long-term health reasons, and none knew that wood dust was explosive to that level). None were ever aware of the Provincial standard of sawdust levels within a plant (1/8 on an inch). No one actually saw the results of a WorkSafe BC plant dust test taken in November 2011, even when requested to see the information.

The inquest will begin again tomorrow at 9 am at the Island Gospel Fellowship in Burns Lake.

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