By Bill Phillips
For some reason, the week before January 20, 2012, Maureen Luggi had trouble sleeping.
She would lay awake until about 5 a.m. waiting for her husband Robert to return from his shift at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake.
“That’s the only time I could sleep, when I knew he was safe,” she said Monday at the coroner’s inquest into his death. “I would lay my hands on him when he was sleeping and pray over him … I couldn’t understand, in those moments, why I was crying. I didn’t want to wake him up.”
Later, an elder told him she was preparing him for burial.Robert Francis Luggi, along with co-worker Carl Rodney Charlie were killed when the mill exploded and burned on January 20, 2012. Maureen Luggi was first of 48 witnesses scheduled to testify at the inquest, which is expected to take three weeks.
About 75 people gathered at the Island Gospel Fellowship Hall Monday for the first day of testimony that, as coroner Chico Newell explained, is to ascertain publicly the facts relating to the deaths of Luggi and Charlie and to make recommendations to hopefully prevent future loss of life in similar circumstances
With a framed picture of Robert by her side, Maureen Luggi told of how Robert Luggi was a caring, family man … stepfather to a child she had before they met and father to their two children. Originally from Fraser Lake, he moved to Burns Lake in 1989 and had worked at Babine Forest Products for 22 years.
“Everyone who knew him will remember him for his sense of humour and his kindness,” Maureen said. “He was just a happy person.”
However, he had been complaining to Maureen about dust at the mill. A similar explosion and fire at Lakeland Mills in Prince George was the result of combustible dust.Robert Luggi had also been wanting to move up in the sawmill and was disappointed when he was looked over for a lead hand’s position. He complained to mill management and told them that he had spoken to the B.C. Human Rights Commission about possibly filing a discrimination case against the mill as he felt he didn’t get the job because he was First Nations.Mill management subsequently decided to move him off the A-shift and onto the B-shift, so he could train as a lead hand. He moved onto the B-shift right after Christmas in 2011, a month before the explosion that took his life.
Maureen Luggi said since 2012 she has become aware of Bill C-45, commonly referred to as the Westray bill. The bill, which was sparked by the Westray mine explosion in Nova Scotia, changed the Criminal Code to read: “Everyone who has the authority, to direct how another person doe work or performs a task, is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that task.”
“Why is this not being enforced?” Maureen Luggi asked. “This explosion should not have happened.”
She did, however, say she forgives those involved.”I pray that we can find some peace and some closure,” she said.
While Robert Luggi had just joined the B-shift and month prior, Carl Rodney Charlie wasn’t even supposed to be at work that day.
“It was his day off,” his sister Lucy Campbell told the inquest. “But, being the hard worker that he was, he took the shift.”
She said he had lunch with his parents before heading off to work that day and that was the last they saw of him. She recalled how, when news broke of the explosion, she and the family hoped Carl had survived.
“How little did we know that this was our beloved Carl that was in the mill,” she said when they learned that two men were unaccounted for.
But when the news came, she said the family was devastated.
“Our only hope is that he didn’t feel a thing because he didn’t deserve to die like that,” Campbell said.
She said that he too had talked about the amount of sawdust piling up at the mill, plus the cold weather conditions. Charlie had three children and, Campbell said, had a great Christmas in 2011 because two of his children were able to spend it with him. Charlie lived in Burns Lake all his life. He worked at Babine Forest Products about 18-and-a-half years.
“He was known for his handshakes and big waves,” Campbeall said. “… He never turned his back on anyone who needed help. When we went through some tough times, he was the glue that held us together. Carl was independent and spontaneous.”
The inquest, before a five-man, two-woman jury, will continue this week with testimony from men who were in the mlll at the time of the explosion.
Steve Zika, of Hampton Affliates, the company that owns Babine Forest Products, is scheduled to testify next week. WorkSafeBC representatives will also be taking the stand. WorkSafeBC has been criticized for how it investigated both the Babine and Lakeland explosions.
In both cases Crown counsel said it could not proceed with charges because of the WorkSafeBC investigations. That has prompted the families of the deceased, survivors, Steelworkers, B.C. Federation of Labour, and the NDP to call for public inquiry into the explosions. Premier Christy Clark has dismissed calls for a public inquiry.