B.C. mill workers' remains found at explosion site
Building 'engulfed in fire,' says local fire chief
B.C.'s coroner has confirmed that the remains of two workers have been found after an explosion at a mill near Burns Lake last week.
Authorities have not confirmed the identities of the deceased, but family members say two fathers — Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, both members of Burns Lake-area First Nations — remain unaccounted for after the fiery explosion tore through the Babine Forest Products mill on Friday.
Officials said significant lab work will be required to identify the bodies.
Distant cousin Charline Schmidt said Charlie, the father of two children, was a hockey fan and a member of the Babine Lake Nation. He was was always joking and laughing, she said.
An aunt of Robert Luggi said the member of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation was a father and grandfather.
Nineteen others suffered injuries ranging from minor cuts to critical burns. Eleven remained in hospitals in B.C. and Alberta on Sunday.
Community pulls together
The tight-knit community of Burns Lake is still reeling after the disaster.
[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=1750 size=small]
"Our community is in a saddened state right now ... with the tragedy of the incident with the injured mill workers, as well as the two that are unaccounted for," said Mayor Luke Strimbold.
"And then [the other workers] also have to think about the future of their jobs as well, so there's sadness in our community but we're pulling together."
Strimbold said the community's main focus is providing comfort and support to the families of those injured and unaccounted for.
"[The families] are just really upset and in shock still, have a lot of emotions on what took place," he said.
"It was tragic for our community and ... there's a lot of unknowns, but I think it's like that for all of us — we all want to know what's happening, where we go. It's going to take time to get there and make some important decisions."
'Wall of fire'
Mill worker John Wiebe, who sustained third-degree burns to his hands, face and shoulders, says he was chatting with a co-worker when the blast hit.
"Just a wall of fire. Next thing I knew, we were both up against the steel wall. Three windows in there blew out," he said. "It lit up, and just as fast as it lit up, it was over."
Wiebe says he's still haunted by the explosion.
"I close my eyes at night and still see this wall of fire coming quite regular, and go out to the parking lot and there's people with black faces."
Ernie Nesbitt was working what he thought was a typical evening shift when the explosion ripped through the mill.
"The only thing separating me from that blast was a door."
Nesbitt said he heard a loud bang before the light bulbs at his work station shattered.
"[I] opened it up, looked to the right, the north wall was gone. There isn't a wall to be seen," he said. "Looked up and saw stars and sparks and knew the roof was gone."
He finally realized what happened after seeing a co-worker.
"Walked around the corner there is a young guy ... He's got flash burns to his hands and face, and he's standing there dialing 911."
Mill couldn't be saved
The town's fire Chief Jim McBride, the first firefighter to arrive on the scene, said a whiteout and temperature of –17 C made conditions treacherous.
By the time McBride arrived, the inferno had taken hold.
"Picture in your mind a building approximately the same length as a Wal-Mart building ... half again as wide and two storeys high, and it was completely engulfed in fire — all the walls, floor to ceiling, stem to stern," he said.
"We couldn't do anything with the mill. It was beyond the possibility of us saving anything.…My first concern was for the injured workers that presented themselves to me — hopefully getting them comforted and looking after their needs."
McBride said he still feels guilty, but they did the best they could with the resources available.
Trust fund for victims
The cause of the explosion has not been determined, but several workers reported smelling gas the day before the explosion.
Police first must determine the blast was not deliberately set before WorkSafeBC or the B.C. Coroners Service can start searching for ways to prevent similar tragedies.
A public meeting is being held at the Island Gospel Fellowship Church in Burns Lake at 7 p.m. Monday so residents of the one-industry town can discuss their future after the community's largest employer was levelled.
The mill is a joint venture between Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates and the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation. No decision has been made on the future of the facility, which employs several hundred people in the community of 3,600, but damage estimates range as high as $100 million.
Donations to the Lakes District Tragedy Fund can be made at any Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch in B.C. or at the Village of Burns Lake office.
With files from The Canadian Press