John Engstrom was sitting in the lunchroom at the Lakeland mill, waiting for a seminar to begin, when a massive explosion blew out the wall to his right and sent an orange fireball toward him so powerful that it twisted the vertebrae in his neck. He followed his instinct and ducked under a table, scorching his lungs in the acrid air, waiting to die.
He survived, but today, 30 months later, Mr. Engstrom is battling to put his life back together. Sitting rigidly at a conference table in Vancouver on Thursday, he shuffled a thick sheaf of papers that chronicle his treatment at the hands of WorkSafeBC – the agency that is supposed to protect workers and care for the injured. After putting him under surveillance, the agency has declared him fit to work and is demanding repayment of benefits.
Mr. Engstrom was losing consciousness from the blast when cries for help from a workmate, trapped under the collapsed wall, brought him back to his feet. He found the edge of the wall, now nearly horizontal, and braced his body to lift the massive weight. “I yelled for God to give me strength.” He hauled up the structure, allowing his co-worker to slide out, and the pair joined their crew in a frantic search for a way out of the conflagration. Two men died in the Prince George, B.C., sawmill on the night of April 23, 2012, and dozens were badly injured.
Mr. Engstrom recalls little from his time in hospital immediately after the blast. The doctors found compressed vertebrae, a burst eardrum, swelling on the brain. Deeper problems would emerge later, signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. After 12 years at the Lakeland sawmill, where he enjoyed the physically demanding work at the log bay, he could no longer provide for his family.
WorkSafeBC’s inspection regime failed to prevent the sawdust-fueled explosions that flattened two mills that year – the Lakeland explosion occurred just three months after a similar blast killed two men at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake.