'I'm still on fire' — Lakeland blast survivor recounts events at coroner's inquest

For Don Zwozdesky, the fatal explosion that ripped through Lakeland Mills nearly three years ago was something he'd sooner forget but will always remember.

"I blinked and then the whole damned world was different," Zwozdesky said at one point Tuesday when asked to give a coroners' inquest his account of what happened that night.

An electrician at the mill, Zwozdesky related a scene of chaos, confusion, frustration and fear that began when he heard the beams of the facility's sawmill rumble and shake. Next thing he knew, a fire ball flashed over, knocking him onto the catwalk.

When he and a co-worker tried to open one door to escape they couldn't because sawdust had piled so high it wouldn't budge. They found another one and got outside where Zwozdesky described a compound littered with "campfires" of burning debris.

For reasons he can't explain even to himself, Zwozdesky said one of his first moves was to go to his locker to retrieve his tools under some mistaken belief that "somehow I had to fix this."

Zwozdesky made it that far before gathering his senses. He went back outside and that's when he heard, Glenn Roche, one of the two men who would die from injuries suffered in disaster, yelling for help.

Zwozdesky told him to walk towards his voice and to follow the beam from his flashlight. Roche emerged from the darkness, with another co-worker behind him, and in grievous pain.

"He said 'I'm still on fire, man, I'm still on fire,'" Zwozdesky said. "I checked and I said 'no you're not.' And he said 'well, check again, I'm on fire, I can feel it.'"

Zwozdesky guided a badly-burned and largely unclothed Roche to a spot outside where he sat down and started shaking profusely.

An increasingly frustrated Zwozdesky said he had trouble getting the attention of rescue personnel.

"I thought 'for crying out loud, can't you give (him) a blanket? The frigging guy's naked."

Roche insisted Zwozdesky take him to hospital in his truck but Zwozdesky was reluctant. However, Roche was soon identified as a priority victim and he was rushed to hospital in a fire chief's sport utility vehicle after he was put on a stretcher.

The inquest has heard Roche, who died at the University of Alberta Hospital two days after the explosion, suffered burns to 95 per cent of his body.

According to a WorkSafeBC report, the source of the fire that led to the explosion was a a gear-reducer's fan that had come loose and became embedded in the steel screen covering that end of the assembly, grinding into it and coming to a stop.

The shaft continued to spin at a speed high enough to create the friction needed to ignite a cloud of wood dust, which turned into a fireball fueled by the large amount of fine, dry dust from processing beetle-killed pine that was floating in the air.

At the time, Roche was using compressed air to clean the sawdust off the machinery, as he did while on coffee break and was near the epicentre of the explosion.

"He said 'I was blowing down, I was just blowing down, and the f***ing thing blew up,'" Zwozdesky said.

As was heard Monday when the inquest began, witnesses continued to describe Roche as outspoken in his concern that following the explosion at Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake three months before, Lakeland would be the next.

"He sat in his booth and he could see the management windows up there and he'd point his finger and rattle off a bunch of things," Zwozdesky said.

"He said 'you watch, this place is going to bloody blow up, they'll collect the insurance money and that will be the end of us.'"

Earlier Tuesday, longtime Lakeland employee Lorne Hartford said Roche would "literally pound on the table in the lunchroom" when expressing his concerns about the level of wood dust in the facility.

"Talking about how he's not getting any response from the company, how he's talked to this guy and that guy and how 'we got to pick up now because they're not doing their job' and 'we've got to clean it up now or we're not going to have a place to work,'" Hartford said.

"A real table pounder with all of the politics and all of that stuff around there. Glenn was probably one of the key speakers in the lunch room."

Hartford said the dust level was an issue for Roche for at least two years prior to the Babine explosion, "and after the explosion, he got aggressive and he was really upset."

However, Roche appeared to be in the minority as concern about keeping the mill running during a tough economic time took precedence over keeping the mill clean, said Hartford, for employees as well as management.

Hartford testified that as more and more beetle-killed wood was processed, more and more dust, which was particularly fine and dry, accumulated in the mill. When the dust collection system stopped working, he said the air became so thick with particulate that workers could not see from one end of the mill to the other.

"(It was) to the point where we thought we should not be working in that environment, but we all knew that we were running a third shift, we all knew that we were struggling as a mill... so every single person there was of the attitude that we got to run the mill.

"We weren't concerned about the sawdust as much as anything, we were more concerned about keeping the doors of that mill open."

Zwozdesky said clean up around the mill was so poor that on the night of the explosion, one of the hydrants was blocked to the point where firefighters could not use it. He said a group of them "looked like spectators" as they stood at one location.

The other man to die in the Lakeland explosion, Alan Little, who was a supervisor at the mill, was described as level headed and intelligent by Hartford.

"Very calm demeanour," Hartford said. "Let's put it this way, if you wanted a guy to fix a conflict in your room, he was your man."

Following a major fire at Lakeland that broke out just the day before the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion at Babine Forest Products, and in part in response to a plea from Roche, Little ordered a clean up of the mill before allowing production to start, the inquest had heard on Monday.

Prior to testimony Tuesday, the jury was reduced by one person to six men.

A reason for the reduction was not provided publicly.

Prince George Citizen