Explosion survivor left with life-altering injuries

BURNS LAKE — There was a moment when Ken Michell was so covered in flames, he thought they were part of him.

"The heat was unbearable," said Michell Monday, the first day of the coroner's inquest into the January 2012 explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake.

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The 60-year-old had been working at the sawmill as a board edger operator that night, wearing a T-shirt despite the frigid outdoor temperatures. He remembers putting a piece of warped green wood into his machine and looking through the clear evening air toward the log deck.

"All of a sudden two orange balls. Boom! Boom! Metal started shooting over top of me," Michell recalled of the blast that killed his cousin, Carl Charlie, 42, as well as co-worker Robert Luggi, 45.

Michell, one of 19 workers badly injured on Jan. 20, 2012, ducked to hide behind his machine, hoping the four-inch thick cast iron wall would protect him.

It didn't. Then the other explosion came, but closer.

"I was running out of breath and the pain in the back from the heat was getting so bad so I stood up and turned sideways so it didn't shoot out the front of my stomach."

Holding his hand close to his side, he was conscious enough to cover his kidneys and liver, which would later fail during the six weeks he spent in an induced coma in a Vancouver hospital.

"I tried to bat the flame away so I could breathe. But it's just like air, you go like that it doesn't go away," said Michell, mimicking his movements with arms that still bear the scars of burns that covered 40 per cent of his body, damaging the nerves so much he lost feeling in his arms.

People would tell him that when he emerged, the T-shirt had been burnt to a bib, just a thin bit of fabric circling his neck.

Cupping his hands in front of his mouth - "just natural instinct" - he found a way to breathe before an explosion tore the building's roof off.

"I was tossed around like a rag doll, I'm over 200 pounds," said Michell, who grabbed at a railing before he was sucked into the air. "I went maybe 15 or 20 feet up and back in."

He heard someone calling for help, and in the "dead silence" and dim of twilight he found a way out for the two of them.

"I walked out of the mill," said Michell.

They would be the last steps he'd take for years. After six weeks in induced coma, he woke up paralyzed. Although he is regaining some mobility, Michell still relies almost entirely on a wheelchair.

He recounted each moment slowly, step-by-step, as if the seconds slowed into snapshots, each frame seared into his memory.

"It's stuck with me. Night time, I go to bed, the lights gotta stay on," Michell said.

Sleeping pills are the only way he can doze off, and sometimes that doesn't work.

"I can see everything over and over and over and sometimes I get this dizzy spell."

Now more than three years later, he's still in a wheelchair and can stand with assistance. Even last February progress seemed unlikely.

"I couldn't feed myself. I couldn't hold a cup," he said.

That at least has changed.

"Now I'm pushing to walk. When they stand me up I can walk a little ways but I want to walk further but my legs start to get shaky and I just about collapse," said Michell, who takes 13 or more different medications. He has diabetes now, he says from the steroids, and has medication for that, too. His new reality has strained the relationship with his wife Theresa.

"Life has not been the same," said Theresa, 52. "I'm just his nurse, I'm not his wife anymore. I feel like he's not thankful that I'm there."

"I say thank you," he objected.

"I say 'Thank you sweetie.'"

Earlier he acknowledged how frustrated he gets with his mobility.

"Things I want to do, I can't do. That makes me miserable," he said. "Sometimes out of the blue I snap, I get mad at my wife, my kids. After I sit there I think about it, 'What the heck, why am I getting mad?'"

Theresa said, "I just feel like I'm a stranger."

Michell said he worries about his wife and what would happen if he's gone. The wage loss payment he gets is roughly half what he made at the mill after more than 20 years on the job, so they struggle financially.

"I told WorkSafe, when are you going to lift the carpet and sweep me under there?" he said.

"Sometimes suicide is at the back of your mind, just get so tired and frustrated with everything and just want to go, go and leave and that's it."

Both describe the long years of recovery as a struggle - and fighting for the justice they say they want from the inquest.

"Somebody has to be accountable for what happened," said Theresa, though both said a public inquiry would be better. With Charlie's sisters, the two drummed the dead man's favourite song the morning before testimony started.

"We don't want anyone else to go through the same pain we're going through today," Theresa said.

"It's a struggle," added Michell.

"A struggle for my life all the time."

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