PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. — Workers on the evening shift at a city sawmill were forced to run for their lives late Monday night, after an earth-shaking explosion and massive fire sent walls crumbling on top of them, killing one person and critically injuring at least seven more.
Colleagues at the Lakeland Sawmill scrambled to help each other, with one saying he used scissors to cut charred clothing off those whose burned skin was dripping.
"It was quite gruesome," said Brian Croy, first vice-president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-424, in an interview from his home.
"When you walk out, there was guys with their skin hanging off their arms and stuff from being burned."
Croy said he was among six people inside the mill's lunchroom talking about training when the explosion happened.
"That thing came up so fast, so quick. I don't know where it came from, but it was almost like a cannon going off. It blew through there. It ended just that quick," he said.
He said the explosion knocked the lunchroom's plywood walls down on top of him, but there was a little bit of space between him and the collapsed wall. The mill's lights remained on, but dark smoke engulfed him and he had to put a coat over his face so he could breathe.
"I thought: 'This is it.' I consciously stuck my face in my coat, eh, and it (the smoke) went away."
He and his coworkers got out through the gap in the outside wall created by the explosion. Behind them, smaller explosions went off.
"It's almost like you were coming out of the war zone. Everything was levelled. I met that one fellow. I think his fingers were blown off, and his clothing, a lot of it was gone. It was burned off and his hair."
Croy said he asked the injured coworker to follow him and others to a first-aid station, located outside the mill and near a planer.
At the first-aid station, injured workers were sitting on a tarp, holding up their burned arms and hands, he said. Some were moaning but others were in shock and were quiet.
One worker, suffering from burns, refused to sit on a chair, said Croy, because the injuries were less painful if he stood up and bounced around. Another worker lay on the tarp naked, without any hair and burned black.
Croy said paramedics set up an ambulance station, and he drove a few people to hospital before dropping by the office and then heading home to his wife and grandson.
It took a while, but Croy said he has calmed down and quit shaking.
For a time, five workers were unaccounted for, though authorities now say no one was left inside the burning mill.
Just after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the Northern Health Authority, which handles health care for the Prince George region, confirmed one person had died.
No other details were provided but the release from the health authority said three patients had been airlifted to Vancouver, a fourth was being treated in Edmonton, six remain in Prince George in serious but stable condition and 13 had been treated and released.
"We're devastated by the news of this incident and our thoughts are with our employees and their families," said Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products.
In all, Sinclar Group Forest Products said 24 people were in the sawmill when the blast occurred, a further 16 were in the planer mill next door and four were working in the yard.
"We will not speculate on the cause of the incident at Lakeland Mills until the proper authorities have completed their investigation," said Stewart. "All of our attention right now is focused on ensuring our employees and their families receive the care they need."
At an early morning news conference in Prince George, fire officials said crews were not able to save the sawmill and will let the blaze burn itself out over the next 24 hours.
"The planer mill is unscathed, as is the district energy plant," said Fire Chief John Lane, as he described efforts to save other operations at the busy mill site.
The district energy plant was built in September and uses water, heated by the burning of the mill's waste wood, to warm buildings in downtown Prince George.
Lane also expected an investigation of the cause of the blast to be led by the RCMP and begin within hours.
"Assuming a criminal element is ruled out, the WorkSafeBC investigation and fire cause investigation will proceed simultaneously," said Lane.
The explosion shattered a quiet evening for Glen Thielmann, who was reading bedtime stories to his kids when the blast occurred. "It rocked the house and sucked the window shut."
Shortly afterwards, Thielmann walked down the block to join his neighbours, who were watching the flames in the distance consume the mill.
Thielmann said he lives about two kilometres away from the mill site. He estimated the flames had shot more than 60 metres into the air. Hours later, clouds and steam were still pouring from the mill.
Sirens screamed through the night and the air smelled of wood smoke, he said.
Andrew Johnson, 30, a web designer and a photographer, said he lives about five kilometres from the mill.
"I actually felt the windows shake and the house shake from the initial explosion,'' he said. "It was interesting because it felt like there was a really big gust of wind that kind of just shook all of the windows in the house. So it kind of just caught you off-guard because you didn't expect it and it didn't seem like there was any wind outside."
"I can't tell what caused the explosion," said Croy. "All I know is that there was no warning, no nothing, because we'd walked through the mill and stuff to come up to that lunchroom and didn't smell no gas, no nothing. So I couldn't say it was gas."
According to the company website, about 170 people work at the facility. The sawmill and planer mill complex includes a hot oil energy system for drying lumber.
The website said the mill's primary products are premier-grade, kiln-dried studs. The mill also supplies fibre for two bioenergy systems, including the district energy plant.
In January, an explosion and fire killed two workers at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, about 230 kilometres northwest of Prince George.
WorkSafe BC is still investigating the cause, but the mill was flattened and 250 people were thrown out of work.