January 29, 2012 at 1:23 PM
Workers on the Friday night shift at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake were getting little relief after nearly a week of extreme cold.
The mercury had plunged to -36 C three days before, and dipped below -40 C the next two days and, although the temperature had risen to -20 C by Friday, a pipe burst spilling water into the sawmill basement. It had to be shut off and repaired. Workers said hoses on equipment that contain materials such as hydraulic fluid were also breaking.
Sam Tom, a 33-year veteran at the mill, was in the log yard that night, running a loader that feeds timber to the sawmill.
A sprawling plant, Babine Forest Products, which started operating in 1975, also includes a planer mill (which puts a smooth finish on boards), large kilns where the lumber is dried before its shipped to market, as well as industrial shops and administrative offices.
The mill is the lifeblood of Burns Lake, a small town in north-central B.C., providing 250 jobs and supporting hundreds more jobs in logging, timber hauling, welding and other services.
At 8:09 p.m. on January 20, this backbone of the community was dealt a deadly blow, when the mill exploded in a fireball that levelled the plant.
Tom knows the exact time because the log on his cellphone recorded his call to a supervisor for an emergency response.
He saw the roof lift off the building — bigger than a football field — then come down, crushing the sawmill.
“Think about a house being picked up and dropped,” said Tom.
Men then stumbled out of the building, some with their clothes partly burned off. Hard hats were melted onto workers’ heads. Some had burns to their backs, arms, and legs.
Others had to jump from the second storey because exits were blocked.
Mill workers Tommy Sutherland and Chris Peterson were knocked unconscious and blown out of the mill and woke up in the parking lot, said Tom.
Sutherland joined Tom and fellow worker Gordie Alec to help coordinate the uninjured workers from the planer — which the explosion had not touched — to get the injured into trucks and transport them to the small Burns Lake hospital 15 minutes away.
They felt the workers’ injuries were so serious they could not wait the for ambulances. The rescue work was made all the more difficult because it was snowing heavily.
“The workers that helped out, it will be hard on them, observed Tom. “We all helped get the guys out that were hurt,” he said. “But [even those that were not injured] they’ll suffer from what they’ve seen.”
In total, 19 workers were injured seriously enough that night to be sent to hospital.
Two more — Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr. — were missing. Their bodies have since been recovered.
It didn’t take long for the community of 3,600 west of the mill on Highway 16 to learn of the explosion. Some workers — such as Vinh Nguyen, who suffered burns to his face and hands — immediately phoned home to tell his family he was hurt but alive.
Word spread quickly.
John Bertacco’s sister-in-law called to tell him about the explosion.
He had reason to be concerned because his son Blaine Williams, a forklift operator, was on the night shift.
After a cellphone call determined his son was OK, Bertacco went to the hospital to see if he could help.
Help came from all around the area; retired nurses showed up to help out, and a pair of doctors drove 130 kilometres from Vanderhoof.
Bertacco was handed scissors and asked to help cut clothing off the burn victims. “We cut the clothes off five or six victims” said Bertacco, a Lake Babine Nation councillor. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said sombrely, noting the last major tragedy in the community was when five high school students ready to graduate were killed in a car crash in the late ’70s.
Just before the tiny Burns Lake hospital, which has four emergency beds, became a trauma and triage centre, Dr. Loren Caira was thinking about going to bed in the nearby doctors’ residence.
Caira, who was new in town, turned out to be the right doctor, in the right place, at the right time.
The 28-year-veteran and former Los Angeles emergency physician had loads of trauma experience, and had handled victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and riots.
He had recently returned to B.C. — he went to medical school at the University of B.C. — and had been contracted to provide medical services in Burns Lake.
He received the call from a nurse about 8:30 p.m. saying there had been an explosion and fire at a sawmill. Initially, they were expecting 40 victims.
Caira had no idea if there was a disaster plan in because he had just started the job.
He quickly learned there was one — called a code orange for mass casualties — that put medical and emergency personnel into high gear along the Highway 16 corridor from Smithers to Prince George.
“It kicked ass ... one of the best I’ve seen,” said Caira of the Northern Health plan.
And he had high praise for the nurses, doctors and paramedics that helped out that night, saying they worked “tightly” together.
Of particular importance, the medical team had to ensure they quickly inserted breathing tubes into victims with scorched air passages because they can swell, making it difficult to breathe.
But the initial response went smoothly.
A doctor can only save one or two people at a time; without everyone else in a medical team working in tandem, nobody gets saved, said Caira.
That “nobody lost their head” was all the more impressive because some of the victims were badly burned, with as much as 50 per cent of their bodies affected.
The Burns Lake hospital team had the first two patients in critical condition en route to other hospitals in less than an hour after their arrival.
“It was really remarkable,” said Caira.
The victims were sent to hospitals in Smithers, Vanderhoof and Prince George, with the most severely injured — including Kenny Michell and Steve Dominic — sent to specialized burn units in Vancouver and Edmonton.
Air ambulance crews flew into Prince George, jumped into critical care ambulances and met emergency personnel travelling on Highway 16 from Burns Lake at about the halfway point, where the burn victims were then transferred. The most seriously injured still remain in hospital.
Co-ordination of the code orange was handled by an emergency operations team at the University Hospital of the North in Prince George.
The tally isn’t in yet, but around 50 to 100 medical personnel helped out that night, estimates Steve Raper, a spokesman for Northern Health.
Raper said Northern Health is already considering temporarily locating a plastic surgeon in Burns Lake to provide care for the victims.
Nearly 1,000 kilometres away in Portland, Ore., Steve Zika, the CEO of Hampton Affiliates, which has owned an 89 per cent stake in the Babine sawmill since 2006, was at home on that Friday night.
He received a call about 8:45 p.m. that told him his Canadian mill had exploded – a notion he said he still has trouble comprehending.
“As you can imagine it was horrible news. I took the next plane out in the morning with three or four of our other executives,” said Zika, in an interview from Portland, where he had returned from the four-day trip to Burns Lake.
While in the community, Zika faced animosity from workers at a pair of meetings held at the Island Gospel Fellowship Church.
One meeting was held at the behest of the company for the mill’s employees, while the other was a public meeting for the community that included the RCMP and WorkSafeBC.
Zika said the mill had not come to the attention of company executives as a safety concern.
The United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at Babine, has also said the same.
However, workers at the mill said the company focused on production over safety, and back-to-back 10-hour shifts left little time for proper maintenance and cleanup. These type of shifts are not uncommon in the past decade in northern B.C. as companies have tried to drive down manufacturing costs.
Archie Alec, who worked the morning shift at the sawmill that Friday, had reported smelling something burning or smouldering at the mill. Millwrights investigated but didn’t find anything.
The problems caused by the extreme cold — pipes freezing and the water being shut off — should have led to the mill being shut down, said Alec.
Union officials have noted other mills in northern B.C. didn’t shut down during the cold snap.
Zika said Babine has one of the best safety records in the company, which includes its six mills in the U.S.
He also stressed that in the 60-year history of the family-owned company, they had never seen an incident like this — fires occasionally, but never an explosion, he said.
In Burns Lake, as soon as word spread about the explosion, townspeople started to gather outside the hospital despite the frigid weather.
That’s when the Babine Lake Nation decided to open the Margaret Patrick Memorial Centre, located just a short distance up the snow-packed road.
The large hall quickly became a refuge for workers, their families and friends — a place where the tight community could share experiences and find comfort, but also a place where they could get the latest news.
While everyone realized they were hoping for a miracle to find the missing workers alive, news three days later that two bodies had been found was still devastating.
The pain has been tempered somewhat by the supportive response from the community.
Volunteers from the first nation served breakfast, lunch and dinner, with help from donations from other locals.
Burns Lake has also issued a challenge to fill up the town’s Royal Canada Legion building with donations of non-perishable food and toiletries for the now out-of-work mill employees. Hampton Affiliates announced it is giving workers an extra week of pay, but beyond that workers will need to apply for employment insurance or find other work.
The company has said if a decision to rebuild the mill is made, it will take about two years before a new plant is in operation.
Contributions to support the community are coming from other first nations, including the Tsay Keh Dene and Saik’uz in northern B.C., as well as corporate donors.
Apache, a partner in the natural gas Pacific Trails Pipeline, donated $10,000 to the Lakes District Tragedy Fund set up after the explosion, noted David Luggi, chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight first nations in northern B.C.
Donations to the fund can be made at any CIBC branch in B.C.
The United Steelworkers has also started a fund, and donations can be made at Community Savings Credit Union branches in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, or in sealed envelopes at other credit unions in B.C. CUPE has donated $10,000, and USW members can make payroll deductions. Two northern B.C. lumber producers, Conifex and Canfor, have agreed to match those payroll deductions, said United Steelworkers local 1-424 president Frank Everitt.
He cautioned that workers are going to need the help, noting they are dealing with loss of life, life-altering injuries and loss of employment.
“For the workers, they’ll be dealing with this long term,” said Everitt.
Four days after the explosion, the memorial hall was mostly empty, with townsfolk attending an afternoon service led by Prince George’s Catholic Bishop Gerald Weisner.
Left behind in the sudden quietness, Sam, who had watched the roof lift off the mill, said he wanted to thank people for their support, exemplified by the gesture of school kids more than 200 kilometres away.
The elementary school children from Prince George had sent handmade cards and each worker took one of the cards home.
“The card I got had a nice picture and it said, ‘I’m sorry ...’,” said Sam. “It meant a lot to us.”