Prince George sawmill fire probe focuses on surviving workers

Officials have released the name of a second worker who died following the explosion at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George, B.C., as inspectors prepare to interview the surviving workers.

The B.C. Coroners Service said Glenn Francis Roche, 46, of Prince George was among 24 employees who were working in that part of the sawmill when it exploded and burned at about 9:38 p.m. PT Monday.

He was originally taken to University Hospital of Northern BC, but later was taken by air ambulance to Edmonton for more specialized care.

Officials confirmed the first fatality from the fire was shift supervisor Alan Little, 43, who died around 5:30 a.m. PT Tuesday.

A total of 24 people were treated at a local hospital after the fire. Fourteen of them have been treated and released, Northern Health said, while five remain at UHNBC in serious condition.

Four workers, including the worker who died in Edmonton, were airlifted to other facilities after the fire.

The worker transported to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria was on a ventilator in stable condition, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Island Health Authority said Wednesday.

A Vancouver Coastal Health representative said the two workers airlifted to Vancouver General were in critical condition.

'I'm devastated'

Meanwhile, the president of the Sinclair Group, the company that owns the mill, spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday.

"There really aren't words. I'm devastated," Greg Stewart told reporters outside the University Hospital of Northern BC "It's the hardest thing that any one of us in our company has had to deal with and we're just devastated."

Stewart was at the hospital visiting some of the injured workers.

"The truth is, in terms of what you can tell them — all I can express are [the] deepest of sympathies and the fact that Sinclair Group, Lakeland Mills, we're a family company, we're going to be committed to them."

Stewart couldn't say whether the company planned to rebuild the mill.

"In all honesty, that is not been our focus at this time," he said.

"We have been really focused on making sure that we can provide the family with the services that they need, and making sure that the employees have been dealt with appropriately. That is a decision that will come later."

Investigators to begin interviews

Prince George Fire Chief John Lane said the fire scene remains too unsafe to enter on Wednesday morning, as fire crews continued to put out hotspots at the mill site.

"It's not safe. We certainly want to ensure that all of the remaining hotspots are out, then the steel superstructure, the stability of it needs to be verified," said Lane

Meanwhile a team investigators — made up of police, fire and WorkSafeBC inspectors — will start Wednesday to interview mill workers who were onsite.

"This will be a laborious, methodical examination and the outcome is months away," said Lane.

The debris field from the explosion extends at least 400 metres from the eastern edge of the building, but Lane said the action of workers helped save the lives of some of their colleagues.

"I believe fellow workers carried, dragged, assisted those folks that couldn't move or were less mobile out, so they're truly the heroes in this incident," Lane said.

Initial reports suggested 50 people were working at the site on Monday, but the company later said that 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.

Dangerous dust levels suspected

At least one B.C. mill has halted operations temporarily, according to union officials, after the provincial government announced sawmills in the province will be inspected for safety on Tuesday.

The cause of Monday's explosion has not yet been determined, but some outside experts have pointed to high dust levels from milling dry pine beetle wood as a possible cause.

Stephen Hunt, a director with the United Steelworkers Union, says union members tell him mills have been cutting back on clean-up for several years because of the economic downtown.

He says at least one mill, the operation in Fort St James, has voluntarily shut-down because of cleaning issues following the explosion in Prince George.

"They've just taken steps to clean it up, just do a better clean-up," Hunt told CBC News on Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, B.C. Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says Interior sawmills are going to focus on dust accumulation in a bid to prevent any more saw mill explosions.

MacDiarmid met with WorkSafeBC, along with industry and union representatives, at the premier's office Wednesday morning.

"The order that is coming from WorkSafe, which will go out to the industry tomorrow, asks industry to look carefully at dust, so sawdust, and asks them to look at ignition sources," she said.

"It's not to say conclusively that either of those two things are what caused these explosions but that is a possibility and this is a precaution."

MacDiarmid says a working group, committed to "plain language" and best practices, has been formed to get to the bottom of the explosions.

Mills that process pine beetle wood will be the first priority for inspectors, according to B.C.'s Minister of Jobs Pat Bell.

"We're going to start in the mountain pine beetle region because there's maybe some linkages there, do detailed safety inspections and then move into the rest of the province," said Bell.

Links to Burns Lake explosion suggested

High dust levels have also been suggested as the cause of a similar explosion at a sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., in January that killed two workers.

But the cause of the Burns Lake explosion has also not yet been determined by investigators who completed their review of the site last week.

WorkSafeBC has said it has no plans to release any findings of its investigation into the Burns Lake mill until its report is complete, but Independent MLA Bob Simpson is calling for the release of any preliminary reports immediately.

"If WorkSafeBC has any inkling whatsoever that accumulated dust from processing these logs may have been a causal factor in the Burns Lake situation, they should release that information."

With files from The Canadian Press