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Calgary’s Hub Oil explosion: A sombre 20th anniversary for victims’ families

WATCH: Friday marked 20 years since the Hub Oil refinery burst into flames in southeast Calgary. As Tracy Nagai reports, the families of two men killed in the explosion say they will be forever haunted by that day.

Friday marks the 20th anniversary of Calgary’s deadly Hub Oil explosion.

The explosion at the refinery on 17 Avenue Southeast happened on Aug. 9, 1999, sending flames shooting into the air and forcing first responders to keep their distance before crews could work on getting the fire under control.

Surrounding homes were also evacuated over fears another explosion could happen without warning.

READ MORE: Increasing oil-by-rail shipments prompts safety fears

The blast was so big, shrapnel from the oil plant was found by witnesses watching the fire from a kilometre away.

The industrial accident killed 26-year-old Ryan Eckhard and 24-year-old Ryan Silver.

Bobbi-Jo Eckhard poses with her three children, Chelsey, Kay-Lee and Kassidy, all three years old, in Calgary in this July 31, 2001, file photo. Bobbi-Jo lost her husband, Ryan, in the Aug. 9, 1999, Hub Oil explosion.
Bobbi-Jo Eckhard poses with her three children, Chelsey, Kay-Lee and Kassidy, all three years old, in Calgary in this July 31, 2001, file photo. Bobbi-Jo lost her husband, Ryan, in the Aug. 9, 1999, Hub Oil explosion. (CP PHOTO/Calgary Herald - Mikael Kjellstrom)

Silver’s mother Valerie said her other son, Blake, was supposed to be at the refinery with Ryan, as both men worked there, but that Blake had recently quit.

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Valerie said one of her daughters, Tanya, could see the explosion from her bedroom window in Abbeydale, while the other was working at Sunridge Mall at the time and was told about it by co-workers.

“We all showed up at the Peter Lougheed (Centre) not knowing… you just get this gut feeling,” Valerie said. “We phoned other hospitals, too.”

READ MORE: Record amount of Canadian oil exported by rail raises safety concerns

The family was told to return home, desperately waiting for word on their missing family member.

The family learned of Silver’s death the next day.

“When they came over here that afternoon and told us they had found him… that’s when our life changed,” Valerie said.

“What good came out of it? You just learn to love each other a whole different way.”

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“It does change you,” Valerie said. “You have to talk about it, you have to be strong about it.”

She said the tremendous loss they suffered brought her and her husband Everett closer together.

“You can’t feel sorry for yourself,” Valerie said. “And of course, I’ve got to be strong for the other kids.”

“He was seriously a good kid,” she said of Silver. “He worked hard, he laughed hard, he partied hard. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”

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“And the hardest part is we never got to see him to say goodbye.”

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‘It’s very vivid in my mind still’: Firefighter Garth Rabel remembers arriving at the scene

Firefighter Garth Rabel reflects on Hub Oil explosion
Firefighter Garth Rabel reflects on Hub Oil explosion

WATCH ABOVE: Garth Rabel joins Global News Morning Calgary to talk about being one of the first Calgary Firefighters on scene at the 1999 Hub Oil explosion in the city’s southeast.

Garth Rabel was one of the first Calgary firefighters on the scene at the 1999 Hub Oil explosion in the city’s southeast.

“All the years that I’ve been in service, Hub Oil is definitely one the major incidents that has occurred throughout my career,” Rabel said Friday while speaking on Global News Morning Calgary. “It’s very vivid in my mind still.”

“I was just working at our training academy, which was just south of the Hub Oil site,” he explained. “The building shook and the lights went on and off, and when I opened up the blinds to look to the Hub Oil site, a large fireball was just starting to come over top.”

Rabel said he and a few of his fellow firefighters went to the scene in a car — not a fire truck.

He said as they approached the site, they saw people driving away with blood on their faces and cuts.

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“Their side windows had been blown out, and they were concussed — they didn’t know where they were,” Rabel explained.

“Those first few moments were extremely chaotic.”

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Rabel said it took “nine or 10 hours” before they were able to get the massive blaze completely under control.

“It’s a memory I’ll have forever.”

Firefighter Mike Van Tetering reflects on the Hub Oil emergency response

Firefighter Mike Van Tetering reflects on Hub Oil explosion
Firefighter Mike Van Tetering reflects on Hub Oil explosion

WATCH ABOVE: CFD District Chief Mike Van Tetering joins Global News Morning Calgary to look back at the 1999 Hub Oil Explosion and his role in the emergency response.

Firefighter Mike Van Tetering was at the airport doing training when the explosion happened. He said firefighters saw the smoke before they were even called to the scene.

“We knew we had something very large,” Van Tetering said. “We knew it was going to be a long-duration incident.”

When they arrived on the scene, Van Tetering and his colleagues were tasked with evacuating the community of Penbrooke Meadows.

“The kids were out of school — there were kids in playgrounds, stuff like that — so it was a large task, but we got it done.”

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“A lot of people were worried about their property — and their loved ones, of course — but at that time, the main goal was just to get people to a safe area,”  Van Tetering explained.

He said the fire was volatile and unpredictable.

“Every time we made a push to the fire to get close to it, there was an explosion.”

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“It sticks with me today,” he added. “It was very impactful.”