I will forever remember the night of April 23rd, 2012 and how it changed everything.
“Curt, do you mind helping Cody at the Stacker?” Al had asked. “Of course I will.” I said, because I was scheduled to train on the Eliminator and that was a job I didn’t care for. “Also, could you clean the log bunks on your breaks? Just take your breaks later.” Al said. “Sure.” I said, so off I went to help Cody.
When I got there, Cody was happy because it made his job easier. Cleaning the log bunks was no different than any other night. The small head rig had about ten small logs. I was going to take my jacket off because it was hot inside but I left in on to keep my arms from getting scratched up. I started to make my way to the large head rig to get the large logs.
“How’s it going?” Glen asked, as he always did. “Fine”, I replied with a grin. Off he went to blow down the saws like he always did. On the ground there were sawdust chips and dust so I started to sweep them down the hole to the conveyor. I decided to get the large logs over with because they are a pain to deal with. As I was looking for my locks: looking for the right MCC panels, I thought “I better finish sweeping the floor”.
On my hands and knees, I crawled and then, like a jet engine ...WHOOSH! I was lying on the floor with my arms over my head screaming in a slow voice. “He-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-p-p-p-p-p, I need help!” The fear was so beyond what I have ever felt. The heat was like an oven, dry and hot. My lungs were cooking, my legs heating up. My initial thought was that my co-workers were coming to get me. I was unaware that the whole mill was destroyed.
“Curt, we can’t stay here any longer”. I said to myself. So I started to crawl out. Behind me were flames; beside me was a wall of flames, machinery in the thick of it. My hard hat was gone, safety glasses gone. Holding my breath from the smoke and with my eyes closed tight, I was reaching ahead of me to find a safe route. Of course there is only one way out.
I touched my wrist on a metal corner frame. It felt so-o-o cold; like frostbite. It was that hot. “Okay, don’t go that way; stay to the right”. I thought to myself. Picking up the pace, faster and faster. The scream of the fire burning all around me. Coughing and hacking, catching my breath and holding it once more. Finally, I was able to stand. Looking around, I saw the sheer destruction of fire.
My face was so hot I thought I was burning alive. Feeling, that emotion was horrifying. Time stood still. “Curt, you’re fine”, I thought. My pants were fine, just hot like the feeling from sitting to close to a campfire, my jacket was in good shape, and my boots were still intact.
“Okay, I have to keep moving. There’s a door about 20 paces up ahead”. I said to myself. On I went, with my eyes shut. The colour was so orange and bright, like looking at the sun, but with my eyes shut. Thick black smoke filled the air and my lungs. The smell of burning hydraulic oil, wood, melting metal, burning facial hair and my buzz cut.
The greatest scent was the sweet outside air. I will never forget it. How cool it was on my lungs and on my whole body. I was on the second floor of the mill so I was standing on a deck. The drop was roughly 20 meters. I was screaming for help but it was hurting my lungs and throat. “Help!”, I, said as loud as I could but my voice was getting so weak.
I was looking down to see if maybe I could slide down a pole or something; anything. Really, no one was around but the cool wind; train horns off in the distance. While I was thinking what to do next, some co-workers saw me up on the deck and they needed to help me. That’s when they saw me go into the mill. My thought was”, I’m not going to jump and break my bones, so I will risk it”. Directly to the right, going inside, there are stairs to the main floor. It was pitch black, no emergency lights because they burned out fast. Safely down the stairs I went, stopping half way to soak my face in the fire sprinklers, so nice and cool. I did not want to move but my adrenaline was telling me to keep moving. I got to the floor and thought, “Am I dead or sleeping or am I n a nightmare?” Who knows-you have a billion different thoughts coursing through you.
I remember there’s and exit door about five feet away. Blocked! Panic was starting to sink in. Looking down the hallway, I knew there was another exit door but it was too dark to see. I didn’t have glasses on and I would have to pass under the engulfed flames on the second floor, so I headed to the Chipper room where there was another exit door. On my left, you could see the shadows where the ceiling had collapsed. The Electrician’s room was a no go. The roof was down and looked like an ‘X”. Lights were still on, which was a surprise. The next door, blocked, same as the next. A part of me wanted to give up. My survival feeling which I didn’t know I had, kept pushing me.
This image will forever live with me. “Help, I’m burning. Help me, I need help!” I could see the Whites of his eyes, the look of panic, despair, hurt, sadness and shock. I felt happiness because I wasn’t alone anymore. It’s amazing how much emotion you have in a situation like this. “I’m going to help you”. I said. His skin was so burned I thought it was his clothes. I knew right away I couldn’t take him from where I was in the room. It was just a room. In this exact moment in time, my family entered, a quick feeling of happiness like looking a old pictures, no tears, just happiness. Then the feeling of death coming for me, like waiting for a bus to arrive, the total blanket of fear covering me. No matter what, I was not going to let Glen be alone. I wish I could have done more for him. I would have taken all of his pain if God would allow it.
That’s when I heard Don’s voice, “You need to get out now”. I can’t leave him”. I said. “Don’t worry, I will get him out. You go now.” In slow motion, I looked at Glen and proceeded to move toward the hole in the wall, our exit. With my right hand, Don pulled me through.
My lungs were sore, they felt like balloons. My throat was raw from coughing so much. They felt like sandpaper. As I was trying to breathe in the cool air, a security guard showed me to the First Aid attendents. There was so much going on it was like a movie, sirens in the background, people everywhere.
“Are you alright?” someone asked in the cold night air “My lungs suck, cough, cough”. My leg was burning, my face was hot. “Let’s get you to the hospital” the fireman said. “This is just a horrible dream”, I thought to myself.
I was in ICU for a week. Glen passed away the next day. My Supervisor had died the night of the explosion. It is a miracle that we all were able to get out so fast. In reality, I shouldn’t be here...it was beyond luck, maybe a higher power, destiny. It could be a million things, who knows?
I do know I was given a second chance at life and I have to use it. Not very many people get that chance. I often wonder, why me? I think my calling is to help others in need and that’s what I am going to do. The best advice that I can give is LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST BECAUSE IT IS WAY TOO SHORT. FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, TELL PEOPLE HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THEM AND NEVER GIVE UP. I am still alive because I never gave up.
MEANT TO BE
By Curtis Ducharme
THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER LIKE YOU,
THERE WON’T BE ANOTHER LIKE ME.
WHEN YOU THINK YOU’RE ALONE, WE’RE TOGETHER.
AND WHEN WE’RE TOGETHER, I WANT YOU TO FEEL ALONE.
THIS IS HOW IT’S GOING TO BE,
DON’T BE AFRAID I’M YOUR BEST FRIEND!
THERE IS NOT USE, DON’T TRY TO ESCAPE,
I’LL FIND YOU, AND COME BACK STRONGER.
DRINK A LOT, DRINK LESS, I’M STILL HERE.
SCREAM, CRY, LAUGH, HATE, HIDE, I’M WATCHING.
REMEMBER... THERE IS NO ONE LIKE YOU,
AND THERE IS NO ONE LIKE ME.
WE ARE SIMPLY MENT TO BE.
I WILL GO FOR NOW, BUT I’LL BE BACK;
THIS IS HOW IT HAS TO BE,
CLOSE YOU’RE EYES AND LISTEN,
WHILE I WHISPER IN YOUR EAR,
I NEED YOU, AS MUCH AS YOU NEED ME,
WE ARE SIMPLY MEANT TO BE.