Following a gas explosion in Wheatley that brought down two buildings and injured more than a dozen people, officials warn there is still a possibility of another blast.
Chatham-Kent officials said 20 people were injured in a blast at the corner of Erie Street and Talbot Street in the small Southwestern Ontario town. Thirteen people were treated at the scene, seven others were taken to hospitals in Windsor and Leamington, including three with serious but non-life-threatening injuries. One Chatham-Kent employee remains in hospital at press time.
Emergency crews evacuated buildings for several blocks surrounding the site. While officials do not know what triggered the blast, they believe abandoned natural gas wells in the area could be behind the explosive leak. Chatham-Kent Fire Chief Chris Case stated that there is currently no indication of how the explosion was triggered.
“I have no idea how we can get in and stabilize the situation while this ongoing risk is emanating from the ground,” he said. “I’m quite angry that our firefighters keep returning to save lives on three occasions while we still have this ongoing risk.”
Case highlighted the fact that there is a risk of another explosion.
“That is why the evacuation is always two blocks,” Case explained. “Because we are basically surrounding the area of occupied buildings to try to reduce the risk, and we have our police and public works officials restricting people driving into the area. But at this time, we do not know what’s happening under the ground.”
Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff is calling on the Ontario government to find the source of the leak. He said the municipality can’t investigate because toxic gas is still around the area of the explosion. The municipality of Chatham-Kent issued a news release Friday afternoon urging the government to “correct the issue.”
“Gas is still present and leaking at the scene,” Canniff said. “It is an unsafe area and unstable.”
Chatham-Kent CAO Don Shropshire echoed the mayor’s statement that the scene isn’t stable.
“We still have gas coming out of the ground, and until that stops, it’s not safe to be in the area,” said Shropshire. “Until the gas subsides and we no longer have the hydrogen sulphide detected, we expect that area will remain closed indefinitely.”
Shropshire said the municipality does not have the mandate or authority needed to deal with abandoned gas wells, which is believed to be the most probable cause of the gas leak. He added that responsibility lies in the hands of the province.
Earlier this month, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry had committed to taking the lead on the investigation to identify the source of the leak.
In early June, hydrogen sulphide – a toxic, corrosive and highly flammable gas – was discovered at an Erie Street North building in the town, forcing the evacuation of homes and businesses.
Chatham-Kent officials later declared a state of emergency
The following month, three dozen homes and businesses in Wheatley were evacuated after hydrogen sulphide was again detected at the previous leak site.
This has led to the installation of gas detectors, which officials say may have saved lives.
The toxic gas detectors first went off at about 4:30 p.m. on August 26, giving municipal staff and emergency crews time to evacuate buildings before the blast occurred about 90 minutes later.
“They saved lives yesterday. There is no doubt in my mind,” said Canniff.
According to Shropshire, three municipal staff who went to Wheatley post-alarm to help clear buildings were injured in the blast, including one who required emergency surgery.
Investigators from the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal have been called in to investigate. The provincial agency investigates arsons, explosions, large-loss fires and blazes that cause serious injuries or fatalities.
Wheatley residents who need food, shelter or clothing are being directed to call 3-1-1 or call 519-354-6628 after hours to speak with a case manager.
According to Shropshire, the municipality’s Economic Development Department is also working with the impacted businesses to offer support.
Chatham-Kent Police are asking any members of the public who may have video or photos from the downtown Wheatley area between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the day of the explosion to forward it to Constable Brad Hyatt at email@example.com to help assist with the investigation.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News