Flame and smoke erupts from the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., on Monday, October 8, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

Flame and smoke erupts from the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., on Monday, October 8, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

‘Thought I was dead for sure’: Worker recalls escape from Irving Oil explosion

The city of Saint John has warned of possible “flare-ups” as the refinery comes back online.

First, Jonathan Wright heard a loud hissing.

Then he was thrown to the ground and turned to see a wall of orange, as flames surrounded him and several other workers after a massive explosion at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., on Monday morning.

The American contractor said his workspace was approximately 35 metres from the blast — and the only stairway out was blocked by flames.

“You could not see anything besides smoke and flames,” Wright said. “I thought we were done right there.”

Wright told his story Tuesday, as the refinery regrouped from the Thanksgiving Day explosion which shook the historic port city shortly after 10 a.m. local time and injured at least four workers.

Mayor Don Darling said Tuesday residents living near the refinery remain “very nervous,” even though the fiery incident has been stabilized. He said the city’s large industrial base comes with risks and there needs to be a broader discussion about the interaction between residents and industry.

The city of Saint John has warned of possible “flare-ups” as the refinery comes back online.

At the time of the explosion, there were as many as 3,000 workers on the site.

Related: Refinery explosion could cause gas price spike in B.C.

Related: Saint John residents remain ‘very nervous’ after refinery blast, mayor says

Related: Fire, smoke fill Saint John sky after oil refinery blast: ‘My whole house shook’

Wright, 43, an electronics technician from Florida, said he’s worked at refineries around the world for 11 years, but has never experienced anything like Monday’s drama.

“It was a (expletive) nightmare, I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life,” Wright said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I thought I was dead for sure.”

Wright said he had to jump through high scaffolding and pipes several metres in the air to escape. He didn’t realize his coworkers were behind him until after he was outside, and he thought they were likely killed.

Once he got outside, Wright left the premises after getting a ride with someone else who was about to pull out of the parking lot.

The Floridian said he feels lucky to have escaped, and lucky that neither he or his coworkers were severely burned. He said he pulled muscles and sustained scrapes and cuts in the clamber to escape.

“It was just a blur getting out of there. I just never imagined jumping through all that stuff, pipes and scaffolding and stuff. I just never thought that would happen to me, but you know, it did. I just can’t believe we weren’t burned.”

Wright is flying home to Florida Wednesday, and said most of all, he is looking forward to hugging his kids and his fiancee when he lands.

Irving Oil tweeted on Tuesday that the site of the incident is “isolated and contained,” and said workers will be back to work on Tuesday evening.

Eric Brideau, assistant director of investigations with WorkSafe NB, said Tuesday the investigation will focus on occupational health and safety issues.

“We want to find the cause to make sure it doesn’t occur again … We can write orders or it can go all the way to a prosecution, that’s just a potential,” Brideau said.

“A refinery is a very complex piece of equipment and Irving as a contractor and owner of the business, they obviously have a very large responsibility to ensure the health and safety.”

Darling called the city’s emergency response to the explosion “fantastic,” but said the city needs to ensure it has proper plans in place to protect residents. He said there will still be an extensive review of the city’s handling of the incident, including its communication with residents.

“We live in a world of almost instantaneous communication … so I think communications need to be reviewed – and I think the relationship that we have with our industrial partners in our city needs to be reviewed as well,” he said, noting there have been other industrial accidents in the city.

“We have a very, very high concentration of industry here in Saint John and I think we’ve gone through a series of butane leaks and explosions and fires and I think it has people very nervous and rightly so — we have to have that broader discussion about the interactions and interface between the city and the industrial players in our city.”

An Irving official told reporters there had been a malfunction in the refinery’s diesel treating unit, where sulphur is removed from diesel fuel.

Irving’s website says the refinery produces more than 320,000 barrels of “finished energy products” every day.

– By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John’s, N.L., and Brett Bundale in Halifax.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – Oshawa Generals forward Anthony Cirelli, left, shoots and scores his team’s first goal against Kelowna Rockets goalie Jackson Whistle during second period action at the Memorial Cup final in Quebec City on Sunday, May 31, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
B.C. government approves plan in principle to allow WHL to resume in the province

League includes Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets, Prince George Cougars, Vancouver Giants, Victoria Royals

École Peter Greer Elementary School. (Jennifer Smith - Calendar staff)
COVID-19 exposure confirmed at Lake Country elementary school

École Peter Greer Elementary is the second Lake Country school with a confirmed exposure

Gary Leck, Facebook
Snow smashes through bedroom wall at Big White

Heavy snow fell from a roof on Monday afternoon crashing through a home

(File photo)
UBCO introduces another reading break in November

The break only affects the Okanagan campus

A man wearing a mask against coronavirus walks past an NHS advertisement about COVID-19 in London, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
92 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths: Interior Health

The region is reporting 92 cases after the weekend

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Jason Haskett and Rachel Williams celebrated one year off the streets in July 2020 thanks to finding a home at My Place in Vernon. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Supportive housing gives former homeless Okanagan couple hope

‘This building has helped us become stable and without it we’d probably still be out in the streets’

The south coast of B.C. as capture by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission. (European Space Agency)
VIDEO: Images of B.C.’s south coast from space released by European Space Agency

The satellite images focus on a variety of the region’s landmarks

A copy of the book “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator’s legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children’s titles including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” because of insensitive and racist imagery. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
6 Dr. Seuss books won’t be published for racist images

Books affected include McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer

The fundraising effort to purchase 40 hectares west of Cottonwood Lake announced its success this week. Photo: Submitted
Nelson society raises $400K to save regional park from logging project

The Nelson community group has raised $400,000 to purchase 40 hectares of forest

Amanda Eastwood, Community Connections Coordinator with Shuswap Immigrant Services Society, said the society has received reports of racist comments and actions in Salmon Arm and is working on education, other ways to combat the issue. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Working to counter racism in Salmon Arm, Shuswap

Shuswap Immigration Services Society gathers reports on racism in community, looks at remedies

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Shuswap Youth Launch Team members Claire Waite, Abbigail Paetsch, Mikayla Wilkinson, Brynn Gowen and Caillie Hay-Vicars pause for a picture on the day of the Shuswap Youth Launch interactive event, Thursday, Feb. 25. (Contributed)
Shuswap youth over the moon with success of interactive event

Salmon Arm youth team invited to apply for $100,000 grant

Most Read