By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Experts in Wheatley are digging deep in an attempt to solve the mystery of an explosion in the downtown core Aug. 26.
At a municipal press conference Wednesday, Chatham-Kent Fire Service Chief Chris Case said the source of the blast is still unknown, but every effort is being made to find it.
When residents can return home and businesses can resume is still up in the air, he said.
“We simply don’t know,” Case answered when questioned by a reporter, adding workers, while trying to source the explosion, are ensuring the site is as stable as possible.
Ontario Office of the Fire Marshall investigators have joined Chatham-Kent first responders in the effort, and heavy equipment is on scene sifting through and removing debris.
Chief Administrative Officer Don Shropshire said the municipality has called on the province for additional assistance, namely to provide technical and engineering expertise.
An advisory group, including staff from the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office, has been set up and a provincial HAZMAT team with the goal of carrying out gas monitoring is working as well.
Shropshire said Wheatley has been especially hard hit this summer with two hydrogen sulphide leaks and now an explosion that have forced evacuations.
The blast injured at least 20 people, including a number of Chatham-Kent first responders.
Three of the injured went to hospital, with one, a municipal employee, requiring emergency surgery.
The blast levelled the former Pogue Irish Pub building and damaged the new Wheatley Hotel, Subway and MJ’s Pizza.
Houses were also damaged from falling debris and windows were shattered.
Currently, more than 120 households have sought help from the two-block evacuation zone at 15 Erie St., with the municipality providing housing to 27 people from 10 households.
The municipality continues to staff the Wheatley Arena daily and residents who need assistance after hours for support such as food or clothing can call 519-350-2956.
Arrangements are being made with local school boards to co-ordinate transportation service options for affected students.
Affected residents can pick up mail at the Leamington Post Office.
But even though it’s early days, rebuilding the community is foremost on everyone’s mind.
According to Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff, there’s a groundswell of support for the town.
“Wheatley is an amazing community with a bright future,” Canniff said, adding it’s essential the gas leak source be found and the problem remediated.