By The Canadian Press
| Photo by John Riddell
Toronto firefighters battled a six-alarm blaze early Sundayl
morning at a propane facility.
Aug. 10, 2008, Toronto - Vivid orange balls of fire lit up the early morning sky Sunday as a series of massive explosions at a north Toronto propane facility set off a chaotic scene with terrified residents running from homes damaged by fire and shattered glass.
By The Canadian Press
Police ordered the
immediate evacuation of thousands of residents, many of them elderly, within a
1.6-kilometre radius of the Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases in the Keele and
Wilson area of northwest Toronto following the 3:50
A no-fly zone was ordered
above the site of the explosion and the city's busiest highways were ordered
shut, snarling traffic for thousands of travellers unable to exit Highways 401
and 400 for kilometres.
Emergency crews were
fearful of another explosion as two propane tanks continued to burn more than
five hours after the explosion.
Air testing showed
initial concern that the fiery blast had turned the air toxic was unfounded, a
fire official said.
Witnesses said they were
awakened by a thunderous explosion and saw the sky light up in the glow of an
enormous fireball before it turned black with billowing smoke.
"It was just a
tremendous explosion and blew all the windows out of the house, just blew the
house up, and I just managed to get out of there in time,'' said Robert Helman,
who was covered in cuts and bruises as he fled his home.
Some residents said the
blast was so forceful they felt their homes rock as though they had been struck
by an earthquake. Windows were blown out and flash fires continued to put homes
Helman said he saw a "huge fireball'' and heard "multiple explosions.''
As he ran out of his
house, a "wave of a heat'' followed him.
Ricardo Oliveira, 24, was
on the third floor of his house when he received a call from his girlfriend who
heard the explosion and was frightened. He told her it was probably just a
thunder storm, but then came an unmistakable blast.
"My windows just cracked
and they blew out,'' Oliveira said.
"My whole room lights up
orange and I look out. I live on the top floor so I had a perfect view. And I
just seen a huge ball of flame hundreds of metres in the sky, big black pillars
"We got freaked out. My
family woke up. They thought it was a plane that went down,'' he said.
The first explosion
sounded like a loud thunderclap and could be heard at least seven kilometres
It was followed by a
series of more muffled explosions.
Clouds of dark smoke
could be seen rising hundreds of metres into the air. Provincial police began
closing all access to Highway 401 between the Don Valley Parkway and Highway
400 at about 7 a.m.
Toronto fire services division commander
Bob O'Hallarn said he feared for the safety of emergency crews.
"We are trying to cool
off the tankers to keep them from getting any worse, building up more pressure
and potentially exploding so there is definitely some danger for our personnel
right there,'' he told a news conference.
An emergency worker with
Bombardier, which has a facility in the area, said he saw houses on fire. The
worker, who did not want to be identified, also said he saw propane tanks
dropping from the sky.
Police brought in buses
to take residents out of the area.
About a dozen terrified
residents _ some clad in pyjamas and housecoats _ found their way on foot to
nearby Yorkdale shopping mall, where security offered them water and a place to
Some reported that a
woman covered in burns was taken by ambulance to hospital after her ceiling
collapsed on top of her. Others paced the mall entrance waiting for word from
loved ones or police, anxious to return to their homes.
Beatrice Zampini, 48,
wiped away tears as she sat in the mall's makeshift emergency shelter, her
teenage son and daughter by her side. She hadn't heard from her husband, Gino,
who disappeared in the midst of the chaos.
"He was going to check
on my parents, but the explosions were getting louder and louder, so the three
of us just ran and ran and ran,'' she said.
Her daughter Daniela, 19,
woke up to the explosion, which sent her ceiling light crashing to the ground.
She fled outside with her family, only to find the street teeming with panicked
"Everyone outside was
saying, 'Run like hell!''' she said.
"Everyone was just
running down the street. It was like something from a movie.''
Many describe the area as
a tight-knit community where extended families lived just a few doors down from
While police couldn't
immediately identify how many people would be affected by the evacuation
request, census data of that part of Toronto suggests that there could be as
many 12,500 people and 5,300 private dwellings in the 1.6-kilometre area around
Many were being taken to
a command centre set up by police.
Some people moved away
from the danger zone were wearing masks.
While police said there
were only minor injuries from the blast, some residents said they were hit by
the fire balls. Several people drove themselves to hospital.
Police with megaphones
were warning residents that the air was toxic and they should leave
Scores of police and
emergency vehicles were on the scene. A police spokesman said officers had been
dispatched from all divisions.
A city taxi driver said
he and his co-workers fill up their cabs at Sunrise Propane, which also
provides 24-hour emergency service.
The company's website
says it also serves residential, industrial and agriculture clients. The
industrial gas it supplies includes nitrogen, propane, helium and argon. Sunrise
Propane also provides safety training for propane and dangerous goods
Propane is stored and
transported in a compressed liquid form, vapourizing only when pressure is
The gas is an asphyxiant,
meaning it cuts off oxygen to the body and can cause suffocation. Exposure to
high levels of propane can cause a plethora of health problems, including
frostbite if it touches skin.