Worker recalls lucky escape in Babine blast

BURNS LAKE — Moments before the explosion that destroyed Babine Forest Products, Ryan Clay had received a text from his then-girlfriend, now his wife, asking him how work was going.

Even before the Jan. 20, 2012 blast that killed two men – Robert Luggi, 45, and Carl Charlie, 42, – it had been a week Clay would sooner forget.

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Both he and Luggi were training to become quality control lead hands, a sort of troubleshooting position, and due largely to the extreme cold that had settled over the area - it had dropped as low as -45C with the windchill - they were being kept busy trying to keep the mill running.

Among the trouble deep freeze created, the lubrication used on the saws was gumming up which caused them to dull faster than usual. It reached the point where, the day before, production was shut down to allow the saw filers to catch up with the saw changes.

It also gave the production crew some time to go into the basement to unclog the conveyors and shovel out debris. Jackhammers had to be used to break up piles that were stuck in the frozen water that had leaked out of burst pipes.

But by the next day, Clay said the mill appeared to be in good shape.

Although there were inevitable problems as the shift went on, by 8 p.m. it appeared things were running smoothly and Clay took a coffee break while Luggi remained out on the floor.

Once in his office on the mill's south side, Clay started typing a reply to the message.

"She said 'how's work going?'" Clay told a coroner's inquest in Burns Lake on Wednesday.

"And I said 'well, so far, so good, knock on wood, it's not the greatest but it's the best shift we've had all week.'"

Clay went on to remind her it was only one more week before their trip to Cozumel, Mexico - the destination they selected after winning a draw for plane tickets during the company picnic the summer before.

"She said 'I'm so pumped,' and I said 'I'm more pumped,' and as soon as I pressed send I'd seen a bright light and I thought it was one of the millwrights flashing his flashlight to get my attention.

"As soon as I looked up, I was engulfed in flames and slammed against the floor in my office.

"The whole building was shaking violently, like an earthquake or something. I was surrounded with flames but at the same time there was a large whining noise, almost like a jet engine going off, and the louder the noise got, the hotter the flames got."

The noise is a trademark sound of a deflagration, or subsonic explosion. The ignition point was a flash fire in the east side of the mill's basement that in turn ignited sawdust floating in the air, the inquest was told earlier in the week.

Clay found himself trapped in the office and reached for his radio to call for help.

"At the same time I'm watching my hand melt; your skin melts like plastic," Clay said.

Unable to get a response on his radio, Clay put his hand back up to his face and layed down, trying to stay as low as possible.

"I couldn't breath, I couldn't see anything other than flames swirling around in the room," Clay said.

"And that jet engine noise was just whining louder and louder and I didn't know what is was."

Clay's next step was to pray to God.

"I said 'please don't let me die like this," Clay said. "And it was almost at that instant that I got a cold burst of air and I was able to see, I was able to breath."

Then the office ceiling collapsed on top of him. Fortunately, there was not a lot of heavy debris – it was mostly fibreboard-like material but also some venting – and it helped put out a lot of the flames that were burning up the sweater Clay was wearing. He rolled from side to side to get the rest of the flames off then stood up.

"That's when I realized that the entire place had been demolished," Clay said.

Almost all possible exits were engulfed in flames except one - the office next to his had been blown completely off the building. If Clay had been in there, "I would have been dead."

Instead, it became his escape route – all he had to do was jump through a hole in the wall and drop 15 feet to the ground where debris was scattered everywhere.

Clay was initially reluctant to take the leap – about nine years before he'd fallen off a roof and fractured one of his vertebrae – and he could hear someone calling to him to hang on and help was on the way.

But with the flames getting higher Clay decided to wait no more.

"It was a 15-foot drop and it felt like I jumped two feet," Clay said.

"Everything seemed to be landing perfect."

Steve Stanyer, a millwright, showed up.

"We gave each other a hug and I asked him 'what was that, a terrorist attack?'" Clay said.

"I had absolutely no clue what had happened."

Clay eventually found himself in a co-worker's van with a few others waiting to be accounted for in a rollcall before they could be taken to the local hospital. While there, he tried to call his girlfriend to let her know he was alive "but the phone I phoned her from was a weird number so she didn't answer."

He spent the next three-and-a-half weeks in Edmonton receiving treatment for burns to his hands and face.

Clay never returned to Babine and now lives in Prince George where he works for the city.

They also never took the trip they won but did get a refund on the airfare. And they did go to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to get married.

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