Survivors continued to testify on day six at the Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie.
Leroy Tom worked clean-up at the Babine Forest Mill for only a year before the explosion.
He was at the plant’s green chain on the fateful January night and said he thought the explosion was “the end of the world.”
Tom said he doesn’t remember any fire drills in his time at the mill, but did say the worker’s safety procedure binder was effective in his fire safety education.
Mary Anne West had worked 34 years at the mill before January 20th, 2012, spending the later ten as a clean-up crew member.
Often, she said her already understaffed clean-up crew would be re-assigned to work production during shifts to increase productivity. This and a plant-wide scheduling change from two 8-hour rotations to two 10-hour rotations meant fewer workers and less than four hours to clean.
West said she filed many complaints about these issues: she addressed the dust levels for ten years and expressed concerns about being short-staffed, but “nothing [would be] done.” Three times her superior told her he lost her written complaints at his home.
She also said she avoided the basement because the area was so dusty it would affect her asthma.
Both Tom and West said the mill offered safety masks to address breathing concerns but wearing them caused their safety glasses to fog up. They both testified that this made it difficult and unsafe to work so they rarely used them.
18-year veteran and clean-up worker Vern Gentry said the mill was so cold that January that employees had to cover their noses to avoid being frostbitten.
He said that clean-up workers were not trained or told to remove dust from within machines, nor did they have time to do so. Many machines would overheat and breakdown over the course of a 20-hour day. One professional hypothesis is that an overheated machine belt sparked the explosion.
Gentry said the mill needed more time to be clean properly. He also said they needed about fifteen workers on clean-up but never had more than five.
Because of these concerns, Gentry said the explosion was not a matter of “if” but of “when.” He said all his complaints to management “fell on deaf ears,” and the constant lack of response became “demoralizing.”
On January 20th, Gentry finished his shift at noon but went back around 8 PM to pick up his coveralls. He left the plant approximately two minutes before the explosion occurred.
Gentry said he felt that the company “did not care” about its workers and that the “explosion is their legacy.” He felt the workers had very little support from the United Steel Works Union, and that many of the problems stemmed from the scheduling change to 10-hour work days.
The inquest will continue at Island Gospel Fellowship in Burns Lake tomorrow at 9 AM, where mill management will be testifying.