It was the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 2008 when most residents of North York’s Keele and Wilson area were fast asleep when they were jostled out of bed by a massive fireball that lit up the sky across the city.
The explosion at the Sunrise Propane plant in Downsview decimated several homes with the initial concussion and the subsequent metal debris. It also caused an evacuation order that affected over 12,000 residents in a 1.6-kilometre radius around the plant. It even led to the closure of Highway 401 between Highways 400 and 404.
The incident left several injured and claimed two lives. Twenty-five-year-old Sunrise employee Parminder Singh Saini and 55-year-old Toronto Fire District Chief Bob Leek. Saini was working at the time of the blast while Leek suffered a heart attack as he responded to the scene on his day off.
Over the last decade, many of those who were affected by the Sunrise Propane explosion have since moved out of the neighbourhood. Many who stayed prefer not to talk about it. They are just trying to move on from it all.
To those watching from outside this neighbourhood, it might seem hard to believe a decade has passed already. But many of those who were caught up in it have felt every day of the last ten years. The initial panic, the rebuilding, and the fights with insurance companies.
“You never forget,” said Murray Road resident Josephine Schieda as she reflected on the propane blast. On Friday, she was dealing with damage to her basement from this week’s storm-related flash flooding.
“Sure you get compensated, but money doesn’t replace all the emotional (issues) and the stress that we were put through.”
Schieda was up at her cottage when the explosion occurred. She said she found out about it minutes later in a frantic call from her daughter.
“(My daughter) says, ‘Mom, there was a bomb on Murray Road. You know that propane (plant) that you keep saying was going to explode? It’s exploded,” said Schieda.
“When we came back, we weren’t able to get back into the house for maybe about a week or later. The windows were broken, ceilings had come down.”
Schieda claimed she and other residents had always feared an explosion.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said.
The empty lot on Murray Road where the plant used to be is now filled with overgrown weeds and brush. Multiple residents described it as an eyesore and a constant visual reminder of what happened here in 2008.
Residents said they want to know what’s to become of the land, but for now, that’s an unanswered question.
It is owned by the former owners of the adjacent Teskey concrete plant. They had intended to expand that plant, but the owners’ plans were put on hold when city council voted to re-zone the lot to mixed use from industrial.
“That would be a combination of office development, retail, residential and open space,” explained Al Rezoski, manager with the City of Toronto’s community planing department, adding they are “trying to create community” in the area.
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Rezoski said the landowners took issue with parts of the City’s plan and brought it to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, formerly known as the Ontario Municipal Board, for arbitration. Despite that, Rezoski said the two sides are “not far apart” and that the issue should be resolved within a year.
But residents want a solution soon. Schieda suggested a park as something to erase the memory of what happened at the site, as much as possible anyway.
“These are memories you never forget,” she said.
Sunrise Propane is no longer in operation. The company took a major financial hit after the explosion, including losing $23 million in a class action lawsuit filed by thousands of residents.
Authorities also convicted its directors of multiple provincial labour and environmental charges related to the explosion and levied more than $5 million in fines against them.