The explosion in downtown Wheatley that hospitalized seven, levelled two buildings and left its 3,000 residents on edge is eerily similar to a huge blast that rocked the Chatham-area town nearly a century ago.
In its Jan. 15, 1936 editions, The London Free Press detailed an explosion that appeared to have been caused by a natural gas leak and levelled a central building on Erie Street – the same street affected Thursday evening.
“Villagers first on the scene said they saw four balls of smoke and flames burst through the roof of the building,” The Free Press wrote, “and then the entire structure crumbled into a heap.”
The blast 85 years ago, like the latest one, caused no deaths but two women were hurt by flying debris – just as 17 people were struck by debris in Thursday’s explosion, seven hurt badly enough to require hospitalization.
“The two women had a narrow escape from death in the explosion,” The Free Press reported. Damage was pegged at $50,000 in 1936, nearly $1 million in today’s dollars.
The exact cause of the Wheatley blast Thursday is not yet known, but Chatham-Kent officials said Friday abandoned natural gas wells in the area could be behind the leak in the town with a long history of dodging the worst from explosions involving combustible gas.
Wheatley, southwest of Chatham, is in an area of Southwestern Ontario with plentiful natural gas deposits, which were mined early to provide lighting and heat.
Gas became available to homes and businesses in Wheatley about 1907. There were seven wells in the town. The Beaver Gas and Oil Company, later called Union Gas, eventually installed a new pipeline to serve more people.
“These gas wells eventually played out, but even yet at times they are active,” a 1951 document by The Kent Historical Society reads.
It continues: “It was gas seeping from one of them that caused the explosion of the I.O.O.F (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) Block” in 1936.
The block belonged to the IOOF, an international fraternal order, and was home to the town’s post office, council chambers, funeral parlors and lodge quarters. The building was "considered Wheatley's finest," The Free Press reported.
Six years before that, in 1930, another gas explosion destroyed the fire hall.
More recently, in 2004, an explosion believed to be caused by natural gas damaged a Wheatley home on Erie Street, totalling about $250,000 in damages.
Firefighters and emergency crews remained at the scene of the latest blast Friday. Investigators from the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal have been called to investigate. The Municipality of Chatham-Kent is calling on the provincial government to investigate, too.
Thursday's blast followed a summer of high anxiety in Wheatley triggered by leaks of hydrogen sulfide, in June and July, both of which forced evacuations from the downtown and triggered a state of emergency to be declared.
Gas detectors installed in the fallout were credited with helping to avert disaster. They went off at about 4:30 p.m. Thursday and officials started clearing residents out of downtown. The explosion happened at about 6 p.m.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press