A worker in the Lakeland Mills sawmill described a marked difference in dealing with sawdust since the facility was rebuilt following the explosion nearly three years ago that killed two men and injured 20 others.
In particular, Wayne Cleghorn said during Wednesday testimony that almost everything is enclosed “so there is very little sawdust everywhere,” and if the baghouse is down, the mill automatically shuts down so that no lumber can be processed. He said that has happened a number of times since the sawmill returned to operation.
Like a vacuum cleaner, dust is sucked up and sent through to the baghouse. Prior to the explosion, the baghouse was often not working because the pipes were plugged with either wet or frozen sawdust, the inquest has heard, yet the mill continued to operate.
Investigators have identified the dust from the beetle-killed pine that was being run through the mill as the fuel for the April 23, 2012 explosion that killed Glenn Roche and Alan Little. It has been described as particularly fine, like flour, and would hang in the air.
Cleghorn runs the mill’s slasher, which cuts the logs into manageable lengths for further processing. As the mill processed more and more dead pine, Cleghorn said he noticed an increase in fine dust around the mill but generally put up with it, noting he worked inside an enclosed booth.
However, he said noticed dust would pile high enough to bury a nearby motor and he asked Little, who was a supervisor at the mill, three times to have the area cleaned up.
“It was completely burying a motor,” Cleghorn said. “The motor needs to breath, the fan needs to turn.”
Cleghorn said the dust was removed but found himself repeatedly asking to have the work done and eventually stopped making the request. He said the motor was cleaned once a week but by the end of the work week, the dust had piled up to the point where it could not be seen.
Cleghorn added his father, who used to to work at the mill, came by one time and told him he was shocked about how there was so much more sawdust around the facility.
On the night of the explosion, Cleghorn said he had made his way to a washroom in the sawmill’s basement level shortly after the 9:30 p.m. coffebreak began. While he was washing his hands, he felt a shockwave and heard a large “woof.”
The lights stayed on in the washroom but when he opened the door to look outside, all he saw was smokey blackness. He quickly shut the door and then thought to himself “whatever is out there, I can’t stay here.”
So he stepped back out and, using a hand to guide himself along a wall, made his way to where he thought an exit would be. Unable to see his hand in front of him, he tripped and fell three times, suffering some scrapes and bruises, but after some trial and error found his way out to the south side of the building then made his way to a mustering area between the sawmill and the planer mill.
When he looked back, Cleghorn said he noticed flames coming from the headrig area – where Roche had been working. Cleghorn said he did not remember a second explosion.
With so many casualties, Cleghorn said he and the others not so seriously hurt were put to work cutting clothing off the burn victims. He noticed the ambulance personnel had remained on River Road at the entrance to the mill, so he went over to ask them to drive onto the site, with two of the burn victims following him.