BURNS LAKE, B.C. — A worker who escaped a Burns Lake, B.C., sawmill where an explosion killed two people says he didn't initially realize his face, hands and wrist were severely burned.
Vinh Nguyen, a night watchman at Babine Forest Products, said he was in the mill's basement when he heard a blast on a frigid night in January 2012.
He was one of two workers who testified Wednesday at a coroner's inquest into the disaster that killed 45-year-old Robert Luggi Jr., and 42-year-old Carl Charlie.
Nguyen said he was responding to an alarm and going through the facility to see where its fire suppression system had been activated.
That's when he heard the first blast, followed by a second explosion that knocked him down.
Nguyen immediately got up and headed out of the mill through a nearby exit and noticed his face, right hand, and left wrist were burned.
Outside, he waited for help but no one came, he said, adding he ran to the mill's pumphouse to make sure it was activated. A co-worker intercepted him and assured him it was already running.
Nguyen then went to the mobile lunchroom, where he started pouring water on his face and hands and then called his family.
Workers were told to gather in the parking lot, from where someone drove Nguyen to hospital. As they drove away from Babine, they saw ambulances coming the other way.
Nguyen, who has since returned to work at the mill, was asked if he has recovered from his injuries.
"Physically," he said.
Shift supervisor Ryan Belcourt told the inquest he was standing just outside the office on the mill's south side when he heard an explosion.
"The first thing I remember was just the power going out and getting knocked down on the stairwell," Belcourt said. "At the time I didn't know what it was, but then I felt this pressure and I could hear rumbling and I could hear crashing noises and I felt that whatever was putting pressure on my shoulder might come down on me."
Belcourt said a constant swaying motion kept him there for a second before he got outside.
"And then a second, two seconds later, there was an explosion over the loading dock where I would've been and I saw an electrician go flying out into the parking lot."
Extremely cold weather in the days before the blast was creating problems with equipment, he said.
Valves, conveyors and saws were affected, and misters, used to wet sawdust and keep it out of the air, were not working, Belcourt said. He said the mill's large air fans had been turned off to keep employees from getting too cold.
A similar explosion at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George in April 2012 also killed two workers, and more than 40 people were injured at the two mills.
Dust accumulations at the facilities are believed to be involved in the explosions.
The Crown declined to approve charges in both cases, in part over concerns that evidence collected by WorkSafeBC would not be admissible in court. (Prince George Citizen)
Mark Nielsen, Prince George Citizen, The Canadian Press