Blast survivors recall harrowing night

BURNS LAKE — Steve Dominic fought back the tears as he recalled the day in question while testifying Wednesday into the coroner's inquest into the explosion that destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill and killed two of his friends.

By Jan. 20, 2012, Dominic had been an employee at the mill, located on the ouskirts of Burns Lake, a community of about 2,000 people about 225 kilometres west of Prince George, for 14 months and had worked his way up to chip attendant.

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The job meant Dominic patrolled the mill's basement unclogging jammed conveyors and dealing with the sawdust and debris piles when he could.

A WorkSafeBC investigation concluded the ignition point for the explosion was a flash fire, sparked by friction between a v-belt and the sawdust that had accumulated inside a guard protecting the assembly, located in the basement's eastern section.

Fortunately for Dominic, he was considerably further away, underneneath the log sorter in the northwest corner, working on a waste conveyor that had frozen thanks to the extremely cold weather that had blanketed the area for the past week.

Just as he pushed the button to start the conveyor, the lights went out.

"That's when the fire came towards me," Dominic said.

A pressure wave in front of the flame blew him into a cement wall about 10 feet away. Dominic wasn't sure if he was knocked unconscious, but the next thing he knew he was on fire.

"I basically could hear my hair sizzling, my face burning," Dominic said. "I did the stop, drop and roll right away and when I looked, I was practically rolling around in the fire."

Similar to testimony from another survivor, Dominic said he heard a "really loud turbine noise" and then got up and tried to run but there was so much debris as logs, conveyors and doors had fallen into the basement.

Suddenly, there was dead silence and Dominic made his way towards what noise he could hear. He saw what he hoped was water but worried was gasoline. As his clothes continued to burn, he took a chance.

"Thank God it was water," Dominic said. "I put myself out."

Although his radio had melted, he kept trying to call for help on it.

Then the "whole place went orange" with what appeared to have been a second explosion although it could also have been the fire that followed the blast.

Dominic crawled around looking for an escape route. Unable to find one, he sat down and started to say his goodbyes to his family when he finally heard a voice on the radio telling him he had to get out.

"I said 'I can't, everything's blocked off and on fire,'" Dominic said.

But while on his hands and knees he noticed a small opening and squeezed his way through and outside. He tried standing up but his legs "were like jelly."

At one point during his testimony, Dominic burst into tears and was given a break to compose himself.

"It's just very hard coming back... going through that night again and my friends Robert (Luggi) and Carl (Charlie), I just wish they were here giving their own testimony," Dominic said. "Every time their names are brought up, it's just very hard."

Dominic, who was taken to Edmonton to get treatment for extensive burns, also carried some guilt about what happened.

"For the longest time I thought I started it because I pushed that button," Dominic said.

Others who were at Babine that night also told their stories Wednesday.

Vinh Nguyen, a night watchman at Babine Forest Products, was in the southwest corner of the sawmill's basement at the time of the explosion, which occured shortly after 8 p.m.

He had been responding to an alarm that went off moments before and was going through the facility to see where its fire supression system had been activated. While jumping over a waste conveyor, Nguyen dropped his water bottle.

He turned around, picked it up and upon taking a drink, "the lights went out."

"My first thought was 'oh, great, what now?'" Nguyen said. "Upon finishing that thought, that's when the first blast hit me."

It wasn't strong enough to knock him down, but a second blast then struck him from the other side "and that was the one that knocked me down."

Nguyen immediately got up, turned around and made his way out of the sawmill via a nearby exit.

At first, Nguyen thought he escaped uninjured but then found he had severe burns on his right hand, left wrist and his face. As soon as he got outside, Nguyen knelt down to compose himself and wait for some help.

When he realized none would be coming, he ran directly to the mill's pumphouse to make sure it was activated. A co-worker intercepted him and assured him it was already running.

Realizing he'd been burned, Nguyen's next step was to go to the mobile lunchroom, away from the mill itself, where he started pouring water on his face and hands and then call his family.

Sometime later, someone came into the lunchroom to tell everyone to muster in the parking lot and from there, Nguyen was driven to hospital by a co-worker. As they drove away from Babine, they saw ambulances coming the other way.

Asked if he's recovered from his injuries, Nguyen, who has returned to work at Babine, limited his answer to "physically."

Meanwhile, Ryan Belcourt, who had been a shift supervisor at Babine for four months on the day of the explosion, was standing just outside the office on the mill's south side.

"The first thing I remember was just the power going out and getting knocked down on the stairwell," Belcourt said. "At the time I didn't know what it was, but then I felt this pressure and I could hear rumbling and I could hear crashing noises and I felt that what ever was putting pressure on my shoulder might come down on me."

Belcourt decided he'd better get down the stairs but because he was feeling a constant swaying motion, decided to stay for a second, then got outside.

"And then a second, two seconds later, there was an explosion over the loading dock where I would've been and I saw an electrician go flying out into the parking lot," Belcourt said.

Belcourt said extremely cold weather in the days before the blast was creating problems.

Valves, conveyors, lubicration to saws were affected and misters, used to wet sawdust and keep it out of the air, were not working Belcourt said. As well, he said the mill's large air fans had been turned off to keep employees from getting too cold.

With the windchill, the temperature had dropped as low as -45 C in the days before the blast, the inquest was told, although it did warm up to -27 C on the day of the incident.

Dominic wondered why the mill was running at all.

"My buddy who rides with me, on the way to work we were saying the mill is frozen, they should have just called us and shut it down for the night," Dominic said.

About 45 people were in the gallery for much of Wednesday's testimony. The inquest, which began Monday and is expected to last three weeks, continues today.

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