'We shouldn't have been running the mill that week,' inquest hears

BURNS LAKE — A former Babine Forest Products employee described to a coroner's inquest Friday a "chaotic" situation in the days immediately before the explosion that destroyed the Burns Lake sawmill and killed two workers.

Robert Luggi, 45, and Carl Charlie, 42, died in the Jan. 20, 2012 disaster that also left 19 other employees with injuries, many of them suffering severe burns.

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Archie Alec, who was a chipper attendant at the mill, said a cold snap had descended on the community of 2,000 people, 225 kilometres west of Prince George, and it had become a struggle to operate the facility as a result.

Alec worked in the mill's basement where he was primarily responsible for unplugging conveyors when they became clogged with debris.

"Being downstairs was chaotic," Alec said. "Conveyors were freezing up... all week we had problems with everything starting up. By the time we'd get things going, another machine breaks down.

"Maintenance was overwhelmed with calls, here, there, throughout the mill."

On the morning before the blast, employees were called into the lunchroom for a meeting.

"To us, we thought we would be sent home, but we weren't," Alec said.

Instead, everyone in the mill was sent downstairs to clean out the debris that had piled up in the basement. They had to use jackhammers to dislodge the material because it had become frozen in water that had been leaking from burst pipes.

That seemed to do the trick as the mill was back in operation by the time Alec returned for work the next morning.

"I wouldn't say it was cleaned right up but at least it was accessible to the conveyors," Alec said. "Everything got going and we were able to continue our shift."

On the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the explosion, which occurred on a Friday night, the mill was processing beetle-killed pine but switched to green wood on the Thursday and Friday.

Because the pine was so dry, it produced a fine, powdery dust that created a haze as it floated in the air and created breathing concerns, the inquest has heard.

Alec said he never had to wear a mask when the mill was dealing with green wood but on the days when it was working on the pine, he did, and by the end of the day the mask would be black.

Shown a photo of the location where a WorkSafeBC investigation concluded was the point of origin for the blast, a motor on the second floor below the operating level on the east side, Alec noted there was a vibrating conveyor above it and they tended to kick up more dust than the traditional belt conveyors.

Because he was working the day shift, Alec said he was not there when the explosion ripped through the facility, but he no longer works there.

"My feeling is we shouldn't have at all that week, otherwise Robert and Carl would be here and the mill would still be running," Alec said. "With the horrific temperature and conditions, we shouldn't have been running the mill that week."

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