Joe speaks in broken sentences. He’s so nervous that he has to read from notes he prepared before this meeting. Like the four other guys in Bruce Germyn’s Prince George, B.C. living room, Joe gets emotional and teary-eyed very quickly.
“A lot of people think I look good, but on the inside it’s a whole different story.”
Men Joe’s age—he’s 60—don’t normally show their insides to a stranger. They’ll talk about hockey and the weather and where to get a good cup of coffee, but when you ask them what they’re feeling, they either go silent, or wave the question away dismissively. But not here. Not at Bruce’s. Here, there’s no holding back. Here, nobody covers their wounds. There’s blood on the floor. And nobody tries to sweep it away.
Because these are the Lost Men. I don’t think they’d mind me calling them that. They got lost in the winter of 2012 after walking out of the debris of the Lakeland sawmill, and they never quite found their way back. They’ve had skin grafts, and physiotherapy, and counselling. They’re on compensation and, like Joe, they “look good.” But the moment they start talking about that April night when a monstrous fireball swept overhead, you can see they are still looking for that roadmap home.
John has become chronically forgetful over the last four years, yet he recalls every second, every Hieronymous Bosch-like detail, of that April night.
“We were there at the epicentre. I know what I saw; I know what I smelled. I smelled burned hair, I saw my buddy here– who I thought wasn’t going to make it—seeing flaps of skin hanging off his limbs. I saw his glasses look like they were melted to his head.”
Bruce talks about his new relationship with fire.
“I went to a concert trying to expose myself to crowds and buildings. And John Fogerty (the performer on stage) had a pyro flame shoot up to the ceiling; Man! That concert was ruined for me. I just sat in my chair and shook. I put my head down, ‘oh God, oh God’, thinking I’m dying in a concert. Everybody is yelling and having fun and I’m sitting there, ‘oh God, oh God’.”
Back in 2014, Bruce showed me a photo of his burned face after the explosion. It looked like scorched ground beef. The doctors did some wonderful re-constructive work. But they weren’t able to do anything about his new-found fear of flames and loud noises.
Don's eyes go all liquid when he starts talking. He even has trouble remembering his age. “Guess I’m 57 now. Hard thing to figure out . . . I can’t do public things anymore. I, uh, my daughter”—he chokes up—“her birthday was not too long ago. I couldn’t go with them downtown. And that hurts . . . I’m not able to do those things anymore.”
He’s dissolved in tears, a proud man looking for some kind of deliverance from the weight of memory.
Dave is the youngest of the group. He’s 38, and shows no visible scars. He’s also the only one of the five who returned to work after the explosion, at another sawmill. But that didn’t last very long. He found himself afraid of everything, afraid of making a mistake that could hurt somebody.
“Trust. You know. I don’t trust myself. My own safety. I don’t the safety of the employer. I don’t, you know, just, the, I don’t know. I don’t think people really understand the magnitude of what has happened to us.”
And that lack of understanding is precisely why they are here today, telling me their stories, reliving that April night, crying in front of a stranger. They are hopeful about a class-action lawsuit naming BC’s Workers Compensation Board, known as WorkSafe BC, which was responsible for inspecting the mill, and the provincial government.
They want someone to admit fault, to say “I’m sorry, we made a terrible mistake.” To be held accountable.
It seems a travesty but, under provincial law, the survivors are unable to sue the owners of the sawmill, the people who (as subsequent investigations showed) allowed the mill to fill with so much combustible sawdust that the building finally exploded.
The mill owners say they didn’t know, that WorkSafe should have alerted them to the dust hazard. The mill owners were never charged, only fined, and they’re appealing the fine. Meanwhile, the rebuilt Lakeland mill is back in operation, along with the mill in Burns Lake, down the highway, which exploded three months earlier.
The legal document talks of physical and psychiatric injury.
The kind of injury that produces this exchange:
John: “Hockey games. I haven’t been to a hockey game, pfft, since before the explosion. The noises there. The pucks hitting the boards, they crowd itself, the fact that you’re, you know, ganged up on . . . It’s getting out your front door to begin with. Before you never thought twice about getting into your vehicle; now it’s like I get out there, am I gonna meet something bad, is this gonna happen on the way there, am I going to have this happen?
Dave: “It’s like death on the door, or around every corner.”
Dave: “Something is going to happen.”
But it’s already happened. And it continues to happen. Every day.