A worker at the Harmac Pacific pulp mill near Nanaimo has died after the wood chip pile he was standing on collapsed.

Chris Fletcher, 37, of Nanaimo, had worked at the mill for four years and was a popular employee-owner, said company president Levi Sampson.

“We’ve got extremely heavy hearts right now at Harmac.”

The mill was shut down and workers sent home after the incident at 4 a.m. Friday, Sampson said.

“We will reassess and start up some point in the future, but for right now, it’s just the right thing to take the mill down.”

Harmac is a bleached softwood craft pulp mill operating around the clock. Investors and employees banded together to save the mill after its former owner went into receivership. It has more than 300 full-time employees and runs two production lines.

Sampson said he spoke with Fletcher’s mother.

“The basic message she wanted people to know is that things can happen quickly in life,” and if there is anything people want to say to a loved one, to consider doing so, he said.

Fletcher had a “real zest for life,” Sampson said.

“He loved the job, loved operating heavy machinery. He’s going to be really missed.”

Fletcher was a chip operator, which required him to drive a bulldozer to the top of a wood chip pile.

“All we know right now is that he was at the top of one of the chip piles and he got out of the vehicle,” Sampson said, adding that it was “a very normal thing” for a chip operator to do.

“To the best of our knowledge at this point, it was just a freak accident where a chip pile gave way on him. We really don’t know more than that.”

The incident took place by chip- reclaim machinery, he said. The bulldozer did not tip onto Fletcher.

Sampson said he spoke to others who have done similar work and “they have never seen or heard of anything like this.”

“We are trying to figure out what happened.”

WorkSafe B.C. will take over the investigation once Nanaimo RCMP releases the site, said WorkSafe’s Trish Knight Chernecki.

The B.C. Coroners Service is also investigating.

This was the second death at a Vancouver Island pulp mill this year.

Heavy-machine operator Brian Norman Allen, 62, died in January after the bulldozer he was in fell off a debris pile at Catalyst Paper’s Crofton mill.

– See more at: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/worker-dies-in-collapse-of-wood-chip-pile-at-nanaimo-pulp-mill-1.2217479#sthash.jfvDtCz8.dpuf