01/21/2012 06:06 EST | Updated 03/22/2012 05:12 EDT

'Canadian tough' sawmill workers weep after explosion, fire injures 19

BURNS LAKE, B.C. - Sam Tom is still shaking, almost a day after he saw the first flash and heard the first explosion.

The sound marked the start of a conflagration that levelled a sawmill, injured 19 — four critically — and left two coworkers missing in this northern B.C. community east of Prince George.

Tom, a 53-year-old employee of Babine Forest Products Ltd., said Saturday he's hasn't slept since Friday night, the trauma replaying over and over in his mind.

"I am devastated, I'm very hurt," Tom said during a telephone interview.

"A lot of my good friends are burned. A lot of guys that I know, work with."

"One (worker) came out trying to tear off his clothes. I tried to give him my jacket. He (said) 'No, I'm OK' and he went to his truck and got himself another jacket. He was burnt badly."

Police said the disaster that has shaken Burns Lake and its surrounding First Nations struck around 8:15 p.m. Friday, just after Tom said he had returned from a coffee break.

He said he was working outside on a loader, bringing logs up to the sawmill where they were to be cut before being taken to the separate planer mill on site. He had just finished a coffee break.

"Boom. Everything just went flying."

Chunks of metal and wood flew through the air.

With no time to think, not even about his own safety, Tom said he parked his loader and tried to run into the sawmill, but the flames were too hot and he couldn't get inside.

He said mill's walls were blown out, debris was everywhere and an entire crew was trapped inside.

Almost immediately, a handful of mill employees who either worked outside or at the planer mill, which wasn't destroyed, began a rescue effort.

"Everybody just took it on themselves to do whatever had to be done," he said.

Meantime, the explosions — Tom said as many as five — continued, but "there was no time to be scared."

With ground-floor exits at the sawmill non-existent, Tom said some crew had to jump from the second floor onto the ground.

He said he followed the sound of the screaming, helping one worker with a broken arm, another badly burned.

He said one mill employee, who was also a volunteer firefighter, was one of the injured and resembled a character in a war movie.

"The guy was walking around saying 'I can't hear, I can't hear.'"

Tom said he had to help the employee jump from the second floor onto the ground.

"I was yelling at him, so I used my flashlight to (indicate) where he was supposed to walk."

No ambulances or fire trucks were on the scene yet, so Tom said the rescuers brought their injured colleagues to the mill's parking lot, loaded them into private vehicles and drove them to the hospital.

"We asked around: 'Somebody drive these guys in?' They volunteered and got their vehicles and put them in three at a time. That's how we transported everybody because ambulances were going in from all over the place and taking quite a while to get there."

Tom said the temperature was around -20C, snow was falling heavily, and drivers heading to the hospital faced whiteout conditions.

He said he can't remember when the ambulances or fire trucks showed up, but he does remember that employees conducted their own head count.

Back at home Saturday morning, surrounded by his son and grandchildren, Tom said he has remained in contact with his coworkers by text.

He said he has tried to lay down but can't sleep and is still trying to get his thoughts together. Like many of the rescuers, Tom said has had a good cry.

"Some of them sat down and let out a big cry. That's about all they can do," he said, describing his colleagues as "Canadian tough."

Tom said he was preparing to attend an afternoon debriefing where he would learn more about the disaster and his injured and missing colleagues who knew each other well.

He said he's scared because not everybody has been found.

"(I'm) hoping that everybody comes back alive."


By Keven Drews in Vancouver