At least 20 people were injured in Thursday night’s explosion in downtown Wheatley, and municipal officials look to the province for help.
It was at the site of two previous hydrogen sulphide gas leaks earlier this summer.
Chatham-Kent firefighters, EMS, police and other staff remain on scene in downtown Wheatley today following last night’s explosion.
Mayor Darrin Canniff and other municipal brass advise residents to stay away, as buildings in a two-block radius of the site on Erie Street has been evacuated.
“The gas (hydrogen sulphide) is still present and leaking at the scene,” Canniff said. “We ask everyone to stay away from there. Please don’t go gawking. It’s unsafe and unstable.”
According to Chris Case, chief of Chatham-Kent fire and EMS services, paramedics treated 20 people on scene Thursday night. Thirteen of those were treated and released, while three went to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, and four went with minor to moderate non-life-threatening injuries.
One person, a municipal employee, had emergency surgery Thursday night. Case said the person is recovering.
As for what happened, Case said they have no idea what triggered the explosion, but do believe the electricity was still on. He said Entegrus crews were in the process of cutting power in the area when the explosion occurred.
He added all his crews can do at this point is maintain a perimeter and monitor the area for gas detection, which is still coming out of the rubble.
“We have two buildings that are completely collapsed; that is a rubble pile,” he said. “The adjoining buildings are in a state of structural disrepair, and buildings around were affected by the blast and flying debris. I have no idea how we can get in and stabilize this whilst this unknown risk is emanating from the ground.”
Canniff praised local firefighters, EMS personnel and police for their efforts Thursday.
“Our first responders, they saved lives yesterday,” he said. “They evacuated people from the area. If you were in the heart of that (the explosion), it would not have been good.”
Gas detection alarms first went off about 4:30 p.m. Firefighters and other emergency personnel quickly arrived in Wheatley, assessed the situation and began evacuating nearby buildings.
It was when they were expanding their evacuation that the explosion took place.
At this point, municipal officials call on the province, specifically the Ministry of Natural Resources, to step up.
“It’s unacceptable for the people of Wheatley to live in fear. We continue to ask the Ministry of Natural Resources to take control of the situation and use their resources to correct the situation,” Canniff said.
Chatham-Kent CEO Don Shropshire said the municipality has been pestering the province since June when hydrogen sulphide was first discovered to be leaking in the area.
“We have a responsibility in terms of emergency response, but the responsibility of managing abandoned gas wells rests with the province,” he said. “We’re asking them to take control of the situation and to lead the investigation; to determine the source of the gas and what can be done to avoid another event from occurring.”
Chatham-Kent officials will meet with their provincial counterparts this afternoon.
In the meantime, Case said he’s frustrated, as firefighters are put in a tough position.
“I’m quite angry our firefighters return to save lives and we still have this unknown risk,” he said. “I need someone to come and ascertain where this gas is coming from before we can do anything. We have poisonous gas coming up from the ground.”
He added there is the risk of another explosion, which is why municipal personnel expanded the evacuation zone to two blocks.
“We’re basically surrounding the area with unoccupied buildings,” he said. “But we do not know what is happening in the ground.”
Canniff urges Wheatley and area residents to call 911 and evacuate if they smell rotten eggs, a telltale sign of hydrogen sulphide gas.
Shropshire said the area will be closed off indefinitely.