Sawdust handling improved at new mill, inquest hears

Testifying Wednesday at a coroner's inquest into the incident, a worker in the Lakeland Mills sawmill described a marked difference in dealing with sawdust since the facility was rebuilt following the explosion nearly three years ago that killed two men and injured 22 others.

Wayne Cleghorn, a slasher and debarker operator, said almost everything is now enclosed "so there is very little sawdust everywhere," and if the baghouse is down, the mill automatically shuts down so that no lumber can be processed. He said that has happened a number of times since the sawmill returned to operation.

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Like a vacuum cleaner, dust is sucked up and sent through to the baghouse. Prior to the explosion, the baghouse was often not working because the pipes were plugged with either wet sawdust or other debris, the inquest has heard, yet the mill continued to operate leading to a cloud of dust so thick it was hard to see from one end of the mill to the other.

Investigators have identified the dust from the beetle-killed pine that was being run through the mill as the fuel for the April 23, 2012 explosion that killed Glenn Roche and Alan Little. It has been described as particularly fine, like flour, and would hang in the air.

Cleghorn, who runs the mills' slasher and debarker, was working during the night of the blast and escaped with minor smoke inhalation and some scrapes and bruises.

He said he was in the washroom in the sawmill's basement level shortly after the 9:30 p.m. coffee break began and, while he was washing his hands, felt a shock wave and heard a large "woof," like someone had poured gas on a fire.

The lights stayed on in the washroom but when he opened the door to look outside, all he saw was smoky blackness. He quickly shut the door and then thought to himself "whatever is out there, I can't stay here."

So he stepped back out and, using a hand to guide himself along a wall, made his way to where he thought an exit would be. Unable to see his hand in front of him, he tripped and fell three times, suffering some scrapes and bruises, but after some trial and error found his way out to the south side of the building then made his way to a mustering area between the sawmill and the planer mill.

When he looked back, Cleghorn said he noticed flames coming from the headrig area - where Roche had been working.

With so many casualties, Cleghorn said he and the others not so seriously hurt were put to work cutting clothing off the burn victims.

He noticed the ambulance personnel had remained on River Road at the entrance to the mill, so he went over to ask them to drive onto the site, with two of the burn victims following him.

Once at the road, he soon found himself in the back of then Prince George Fire Rescue deputy chief John Iverson's sport utility vehicle holding an oxygen mask to Roche's face as he was taken to hospital.

Iverson, who testified later Wednesday, said the first 911 call was made at 9:30 p.m. and he was called at his home five to 10 minutes later and told there was a significant incident at Lakeland.

Iverson drove straight from his home to the scene where, after assessing the situation, he loaded his vehicle with as many as seven people, including Roche, while on the mill site with the intention of transferring them to an ambulance waiting on River Road.

But he was told the ambulance had no stretcher, possibly because it was being use in another ambulance while it remained on scene as a command post, and asked if he should go directly to the hospital.

"They said that would be a good idea," Iverson said.

Because Cleghorn was not seriously injured, Iverson asked him to come along to keep the oxygen mask on Roche.

The inquest also heard Wednesday that ambulance personnel keep their distance from disaster scenes unless given clearance that it's safe to come closer while firefighters are better equipped to work more closely to the source of the incident.

Asked if firefighters had trouble finding hydrants, Iverson said all the trucks were hooked up by the time he got there. Some hydrants could not be used because they were either covered in debris or too close to the blaze but Iverson said that posed no problem.

In the years and months leading up to the disaster, Cleghorn said he noticed an increase in fine dust around the mill but generally put up with it, noting he worked inside an enclosed booth.

However, he said he did complain about dust piling up high enough to bury a nearby motor. Worried it was clogging up the motor and would cause it to overheat, Cleghorn complained to Little on three separate occasions about the problem.

The site was subsequently cleaned up each time, Cleghorn said, but tired of repeatedly making the request, he gave up and stopped asking.

"Why should I keep pushing someone to do this cleanup when it should be done in the first place?," Cleghorn said.

He conceded the location was cleaned up once a week during a graveyard shift but by about the middle of the the work week, the dust had once again piled up to the point where it could not be seen.

Cleghorn added his father, who used to to work at the mill, came by one time and told him he was shocked about how there was so much more sawdust around the facility.

But he said that following the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion at Babine Forest Products, and after a major fire erupted at the head rig where Roche was working the previous day, a cleanup person was added.

Also on Wednesday, another Lakeland employee disputed WorkSafe B.C.'s finding that an overheated gear reducer lighting sawdust in the area was the source of the fire that led to the explosion.

"I've seen many of those gear reducer units and they're hot, they're uncomfortable to touch, but had never, ever caught fire," said Donald Zwozdesky, who was an electrician at the mill at the time of the explosion.

WorkSafe said a fan attached to the reducer had come loose and became stuck in a screen so that it created enough friction to ignite the nearby dust. Zwozdesky said he's seen gear reducers where the fan had been gone for "it looked like years, and there had been no issue."

When he first heard and felt the blast, Zwozdesky said his initial thought was that a motor control centre - essentially an on-off switch for nearby machinery - had arced while someone had "locked out" some machinery so he could work on it without the power going back on.

The inquest, which is expected to last at least three weeks, continues today at the Prince George courthouse, 9 a.m. start.

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