Ryan Belcourt was likely the last person to talk to Robert Luggi.
Belcourt, the sawmill supervisor at Babine Forest Products’ Burns Lake sawmill, was investigating why one of the edgers had broken down shortly before 8 p.m. on the evening of January 20, 2012. He met Luggi at chipper #2, he told the seven-member coroner’s jury looking into the death of Luggi and Carl Charlie. The blast also injured 19 others.
“He was trying to figure out why the chipper was down,” Belcourt said, adding Luggi had called in an electrician to look at the edger and the last he saw of him, Luggi was headed up to the log deck on the other side of the mill.
Belcourt then exited the main sawmill building and was just outside the sawmill office door when an explosion blew a hole in the roof and, according to WorksafeBC investigator Paul Orr, launched a 1,000-pound fan 60 feet into the yard.
“The first thing I remember is the power going out and getting knocked down the stairwell,” he told the jury. “I felt a pressure on my shoulder and my head and there was a rumbling sound.”
That was the first part of what is typical of a deflagration, or subsonic explosion, as described by Orr. The second explosion in such circumstances is usually larger and more devastating.
“I saw an electrician fly out of a window into the parking lot,” Belcourt said. “You could see debris falling down from above … At that point I was thinking about everyone in the building, how to get them out and calling 911.”
Belcourt called for the building to be evacuated and got hold of a cellphone from a fellow worker and called 911.
“I felt we needed to go muster (a safety plan feature whereby employees gather at a muster station when the building is evacuated),” he added. “The edger was engulfed in flames.”
He said because it was -40 degrees Celsius that night, many of the workers went to their vehicles to keep warm, rather than meet at muster stations, so it became difficult to get a full accounting of where everyone was.
Belcourt testified that he was aware dust build-up was a problem at the mill, but thought of it only as a respiratory hazard. He testified that WorkSafeBC officials had tested dust levels in the mill in November 2011, just a couple of months before the blast and mill management made it mandatory for workers to wear dust masks in certain parts of the mill. WorkSafeBC had ordered Babine to deal with the dust problems and, according to Belcourt, a plan was supposed to be ready in February, 2012.
When asked about whether there was a “culture of safety” at the mill, Belcourt said workers could have voiced their opinions more.
“We were emphasizing people to report near-misses,” he said. “We felt there could have been more reported.”
Belcourt testified that the mill had gone from eight-hour shifts to 10-hour shifts and that workers were certainly focused on increasing production. However, in the week before the deadly explosion, the cold weather had been taking its toll on the mill and production levels.
The misters, designed to keep dust down, weren’t working, the big air fans had been shut off because of the cold, vents in the roof had been closed to ward off the cold, and a leaking pipe saw water accumulating in the basement and then freezing. The mill had been shut down during the dayshift on January 19 so workers could clean the mill.
Orr, who also investigated the Lakeland Mills explosion and fire in Prince George three months after the Burns Lake incident, said WorkSafeBC’s investigation points to a friction on a V-belt guard as the ignition source. He told the inquest that it was a dust explosion followed by a fire that destroyed the mill. The explosion originated under the eliminator tables where a series of conveyor belts run.
Shortly after the blast in 2012, stories emerged that workers had reported the smell of gas shortly before the explosion. Orr said his investigation ruled out gas.
“There was no evidence found of any release of gas,” he told the inquest. “A millwright inspected the mill on the day of the incident and found no odour of gas. To have a gas explosion, the odour would have been so great it would make you ill.”
The inquest continues this week with mill owner Hampton Affliates representative Steve Zika expected to testify.