British Columbia

Missing B.C. mill workers' families demand search

The families of two workers missing after an explosion destroyed a sawmill near Burns Lake, B.C., are demanding more be done to find their loved ones.

Babine Forest Products mill near Burns Lake 'just a smoking hole,' eyewitness says

The families of two workers missing after an explosion destroyed a sawmill near Burns Lake, B.C., are demanding more be done to find their loved ones.

Two local men, Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, remain unaccounted for after the fiery explosion ripped apart the sawmill on Friday evening.

The mill was reduced to a pile of rubble by the explosion and the site remains blocked by the RCMP. As of Sunday evening, rescue crews had been unable to enter the building.

"We want him found. We want a search party for him. We want to know that he is OK," said Shania Williams, Charlie's daughter.

"We miss him very much. Our whole family is grieving. Our whole family wants him home. We know he's out there. We know for a fact that he will be OK after this, but we want to know where he is."

Charlie's ex-wife Carmen Williams said a search for the missing men should begin. 

"We know the investigation is important, but they should be doing a 24-hour search and get a crane in there to move stuff around," she said.

"Apparently, they've told us where they were situated in the mill, there is an encased concrete thing, and they could have crawled in there and they could be in there."

But in a written release, police said making the site safe would likely be a lengthy process.

"This is going to be a very slow process, which can be very painful for the families affected here in the Burns Lake community," said RCMP Const. Lesley Smith.

"The community is looking for answers and closure but unfortunately it is going take quite some time before we can establish a cause or locate those who are missing."

'Smoking hole'

The Babine Forest Products mill "is just a smoking hole in the ground, a bunch of steel," Ernie Nesbitt, who was working Friday in a saw room attached to the mill's main building, told CBC News on Sunday.

Robert Luggi is missing following the explosion and fire at the mill. (Facebook)

The force of the blast, which happened at around 8:15 p.m. PT on Friday, rocked the entire building, Nesbitt said.

"There was a very large — I guess you could say a huge — bang followed by what was probably the pressure wave. This wave went through our shop and blew out the back door. That back door is eight feet by about 12 feet wide and it's quite heavy," Nesbitt said.

At first the lights went out, Nesbitt said, and then the blast "blew the bulbs to pieces."

"I stepped into the main building and kind of looked to my right, and the whole north wall of the sawmill building was gone," he said.

"The guys that were out there working at the time, there's really no evacuation plan that survives something like a major explosion. The exits are gone, the entrances are gone," Nesbitt said.

Missing believed dead

In a written statement released Saturday, officials confirmed two people were missing.

Burns Lake Fire Department Chief Jim McBride, left, looks on as Albert Gerow, chief of the Burns Lake Band, right, pauses for a moment during a news conference Saturday as he responds to the explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill near Burns Lake, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Burns Lake fire Chief Jim McBride said Saturday he believed they were probably dead.

Nineteen people suffered minor to serious injuries, 11 of whom remained in hospital Sunday, according to Northern Health Authority officials.

Officials say 22 firefighters worked to douse the fire as three trucks pumped 8,700 litres of water per minute until the water ran out, but it failed to douse the fire.

The explosion severed the sprinkler system and water was pouring out elsewhere in the mill, but the fire hydrants were dry when crews first arrived.

The economic future of the community is in jeopardy as the mill was the town's largest employer.

John Ruffell, who's worked at the plant for more than 30 years, says he doesn't know what he'll do next.

Some workers are hoping that the plant will be rebuilt but Steve Zika, CEO of forest products company Hampton Affiliates, said with damage estimates ranging as high as $100 million, he's not sure if rebuilding is even possible.

The Carrier Sekani Family Services crisis intervention team, RCMP victim services and First Nation police officers are providing support around the clock and grief counsellors to the community. A fund has been set up to the help the families affected by the fire.

Donations to the Lakes District Tragedy Fund can be made through any CIBC branch.

Workers smelled gas

Longtime mill employee Frankie Erickson, whose sons were working during the explosion but were unhurt, said on Saturday that workers had smelled gas the day before.

"My neighbour smelled gas last night on his shift," Erickson, his voice breaking, told CBC News in a telephone interview. "I hear the roof literally blew off … Twenty-nine years of work in the mill, and I've never seen an explosion like this."

Erickson also said workers at the mill were being pressured to work harder than ever.

"It shouldn't have happened," he said. "We averaged seven a shift and 10 hours a day and we had no coffee breaks [and] the mill ran for 20 hours straight."

Cause of fire unclear

The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing. The RCMP is leading the investigation, which will be handed over to WorkSafeBC if and when it is determined no crime was committed. If remains are located, the B.C. Coroner's Service will take over.

WorkSafeBC spokesperson Donna Freeman expects it will be a lengthy investigation.

"It's impossible at this stage to even guess how long the investigation will take," she said. "We'll be working, obviously, with the other key parties involved — the fire authorities, police authorities and of course the employer and worker representatives."

The mill is a joint venture with the Burns Lake Native Development Corp. and Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affiliates.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark visited Burns Lake to offer her condolences Sunday.

"I will tell you this: everybody in British Columbia today is praying for those two members of the community who are still missing," she said.

"I have faith that they will yet come back to us. I have faith that those who have been gravely injured and who are now at hospitals … will come back to us. And I have faith that everyone who has been injured and affected by this will find their feet again."

A community meeting will be held at the Island Gospel Church Monday at 7 p.m. PT.

With files from The Canadian Press