Explosion cleanup begins; Asbestos threat, damage keep hundreds in T.O. from homes

Source: Waterloo Region Record, August 12, 2008

The lingering threat of airborne asbestos and serious damage to half a dozen buildings bordering the site of a massive propane explosion left hundreds of people displaced from their homes yesterday, unsure of when they’ll be able to return.

Public health concerns kept some 100 homes behind police cordons as the city embarked on a cleanup plan for asbestos found at the site.

Six buildings damaged in Sunday morning’s thunderous blasts at Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases, were deemed structurally unsound, leaving those residents facing the prospect of repairing their properties before they can return.

Still, officials counted the city lucky since no residents were killed in the blast, although one firefighter died Sunday after he was found at the scene without vital signs, and an employee at the propane facility remained unaccounted for.

The fallout of the pre-dawn explosions at the sprawling complex that housed scores of propane containers — including tanker-sized ones — displaced thousands until the evacuation order was gradually lifted. Some 46 people were staying at a temporary evacuation shelter at York University yesterday.

The northwest Toronto neighbourhood around Sunrise — home to more than 12,000 people — was evacuated after the facility exploded at about 4 a.m. on Sunday.

The explosions were a terrifying spectacle, with vivid orange fire balls igniting the night sky. The blasts were felt several kilometres away.

“I think time of day saved us, and that’s how much worse it could be . . . no one was out of their houses, no one was sitting on their front lawns,” said acting fire Chief Jim Shelton. “The numbers of casualties we could have had could have been tremendous.”

Police began allowing some residents back into the area around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, while the evacuation centre remained open overnight so those who couldn’t go home had somewhere to stay.

Mayor David Miller held a briefing and said asbestos was found at the site of the blast.

“The problem with asbestos is, when it’s disturbed and becomes airborne, it becomes dangerous to people,” Miller said.

“We are unable to allow people in the vicinity of the 100 or so remaining homes until the Ministry of the Environment approves our plan for cleanup.”

The Canadian Cancer Society says asbestos, which was widely used in construction for years, is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and other diseases.

Insurance experts said while it’s still too soon to estimate exactly how much the cleanup will cost, the price tag will likely run in to the millions of dollars.

Brenda Rose, broker and vice-president at Firstbrook Cassie and Anderson in Toronto, said insured residents will likely recoup their losses from damage to homes and businesses since standard insurance policies cover destruction from an explosion.

No homes were believed to have been levelled or ignited as a result of the blast.

Six people were sent to hospital, another 18 admitted themselves to hospital and some 40 people were treated at the scene, Miller said. None of the injuries were thought to be serious.

People hoping to be let back into their residences for such routine items as fresh clothes and wallets so they could go to work were delayed behind police lines early yesterday.

“Our life is upside down right now,” Mario Dandrea said after he was turned away from his house. “I’ve got our kids at my mother-in-law’s house, I’ve got a dog with no food.”

Miller vowed yesterday to launch a review of all industrial areas that could pose a potential hazard to nearby homes in the wake of the explosion.

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