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Families and workers caught in sawmill blast plead with government for inquiry

VICTORIA - Injured workers and family members of those caught in the fireball that flattened a sawmill in northern British Columbia two years ago travelled to Victoria on Thursday with an emotional plea for a public inquiry.
Kenny Michell and his wife Theresa Michell appear at the B.C. legislature Thursday, March 6, 2014 calling on the Liberal government to call an independent inquiry into the Burns Lake sawmill explosion in Jan. 2012 that killed two workers and injured 20 others.

VICTORIA - Injured workers and family members of those caught in the fireball that flattened a sawmill in northern British Columbia two years ago travelled to Victoria on Thursday with an emotional plea for a public inquiry.

They called on Premier Christy Clark to call an independent inquiry into the explosion at a mill in Burns Lake, B.C., which killed two workers and injured 20 others in January 2012.

Kenny Michell, now in a wheelchair, his face partially melted, said he wants to know what really happened.

“I want justice done for me,” he told reporters. “I want justice done for Carl, Robert and the rest of the injured workers. It's hard to talk about this. I still have nightmares. I still have to use sleeping pills. Sometimes it doesn't work.”

Carl Charlie, 42, and Robert Luggi Jr., 45, were killed.

Michell said God helped him out of the inferno that melted the skin off his body.

“I was all on fours, like this,” he said, gesturing. “I looked out and I yelled out to God, 'Turn it off.' I had no other choice and nowhere to go, fire everywhere, I was literally burning. As soon as I said that, the flames went back into the basement.

“People won't believe it, but it happened.”

Reports by WorkSafeBC, which is responsible for enforcing workplace safety laws, and the B.C. Safety Authority concluded, in part, that the blast could have been prevented if the sawmill had taken measures to control sawdust generated by milling beetle-killed wood.

The mill's owner, Babine Forest Products, has said there was no way it could have known about the hazards linked to the combustible sawdust. The company said it took steps to control the sawdust.

In January, Crown prosecutors announced there would be no charges in connection with the blast, partially because an investigation by WorkSafeBC was flawed. The province's criminal justice branch said crucial evidenced gathered during the investigation wouldn't be admissible in court.

In the legislature, Premier Christy Clark ruled out a public inquiry. She said the government has already identified the problems with the WorkSafe BC investigation and ordered changes.

“In looking back through the investigation to see what went wrong, WorkSafeBC came up short,” said Clark. “And that's why we've ordered changes at WorkSafeBC, that they happen immediately and urgently.”

Clark's deputy minister examined the WorkSafe BC investigation and made a series of recommendations in a report released last month. The premier then appointed a Vancouver lawyer to work with the agency and the criminal justice branch to ensure the recommendations are implemented.

That doesn't go far enough for Maureen Luggi, whose husband died in the explosion.

She said her husband knew something was wrong, because he sent her a text message just minutes before the blast.

“And it said, 'Please pray for me, I'm going to check something out,' and at 10 after eight, I understand that Babine Forest Products exploded.”

Luggi, and others at the news conference, wondered how the mill was even allowed to operate when the water lines were frozen in temperatures dipping below minus 40.

“I would like justice. I want transparency. I want accountability,” said Luggi.

“All of this evidence that the Crown looked at, I want to know what's in it. I want the workers to speak at a public, independent inquiry. I want the truth to come out.”

Labour Minister Shirley Bond said most sawmill owners in the province have changed their practices and at-risk mills have been shut down over safety issues.

However, NDP Leader Adrian Dix told the legislature safety is still a concern in British Columbia's mills.

“Two years after the accident, we find 42 per cent of the mills haven't been in compliance,” said Dix.

A few months after the explosion, in April 2012, an explosion at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George killed Alan Little, 43 and Glen Roche, 46.

Roche's wife, Rhonda, told reporters the past two years have been the hardest of her life and finding answers would help her heal.

“The families impacted at Babine Forest Products and Lakeland Mills need accountability for what has happened to our loved ones. Maybe then we'll be able to heal and get the closure that I think we all deserve.”

A coroner's inquest has been called into the deaths at the Burns Lake mill.

19:02ET 06-03-14

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