Reaction to 2019 Old East Village explosion highlights resiliency of tight-knit east London, Ont. community

Hearts along a fence on Woodman Avenue as seen on Aug. 11, 2020. Jaclyn Carbone/Global News

While the Old East Village explosion devastated a neighbourhood in east London, Ont. last year, it also showcased the strength, support, and spirit that residents point to when describing the tight-knit community.

Friday, Aug. 14, will mark exactly one year since a vehicle crashed into a home on Woodman Avenue, hitting a gas line, causing an explosion that levelled one home and resulted in the later demolition of the two neighbouring homes. There were no fatalities in the explosion, but one firefighter was seriously injured in the incident.

Read more: 1 year later: a timeline of events surrounding the Old East Village explosion in London, Ont.

Sarah Merritt, current president of the Old East Village Community Association (OEVCA), recalls that the night of the explosion she thought something may have happened at nearby railroad tracks. Instead, she says she came out into the street and found people leaving Woodman Avenue holding their children and animals.

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“The informal organization at the neighbourhood was really quite remarkable, and I think that one of the reasons that the neighbourhood organized informally — and later formally — so quickly is the Old East Village has always been a very, very tight neighbourhood,” she says.

Click to play video: 'Investigators survey the damage after massive explosion in London, Ont.' Investigators survey the damage after massive explosion in London, Ont.
Investigators survey the damage after massive explosion in London, Ont – Aug 15, 2019

Merritt says the community recognized that it was important to let first responders take the lead the night of the explosion, but she notes that she saw neighbours offering other neighbours a place to stay overnight, while others brought out food and coffee.

“The next day, that continued, my husband and I went to Boyle Community to see if there were still displaced people that we could offer housing to and all of our neighbours were out asking to do the same and providing food,” she told Global News.

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“What was really remarkable was that throughout the whole process, anybody who came forward to offer anything there was a place in the circle for them. That was from corporate donors to a wee child that offered their pocket money. Everybody found a way to help. That’s really what I remember,” she says.

“Our councillor, Jesse Helmer, the night of the explosion he worked tirelessly for like 24, 36 hours and continues to support us.”

The OEVCA worked alongside other local community groups in the days that followed to organize donations and resources. Merritt says the Western Fair offered space so they could organize donations of food, clothing, toiletries, and gift cards.

Libro Credit Union, which announced roughly four months before the explosion that it would be opening a branch in the neighbourhood by the end of 2019, had already begun developing relationships within the OEV before the explosion occurred. According to Libro, a partnership between the credit union, OEVCA, and Life*Spin was launched the day after the explosion and the Woodman Families Fund was created.

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Read more: London, Ont. explosion: Fire department members recount night 1 year later

“We are a member of the Old East Village community, we have put down roots, and we’re here to stay. Like all the other community members, when we heard of the explosion we were completely devastated,” says regional manager Shane Butcher.

“It wasn’t a matter of if we could do something, but what we could do to have the most meaningful impact. The families on and near Woodman Avenue and the Old East Village community have shown incredible strength through this experience. As we navigated how we were going to help, and who got help first, the families impacted were more worried about each other than themselves. The fibre of the community was never more evident; reinforcing our decision to be part of it.”

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Life*Spin executive director Jacqueline Thompson says its role was to “facilitate bringing leaders together and establishing a mechanism for the broader community to support urgent needs.”

“Establishing a fund at Libro with the Old East Village Community Association enabled us to provide access to things like urgent shelter and repairs to move home, food, transportation, medication, and mental health supports,” says Thompson.

“We all worked together to ensure the families, our neighbours, could define their own needs, without judgment, as they were all dealing with significant trauma in their own way.”

A week after the explosion, the OEVCA announced that an initial $50,000 raised would be quickly dispersed to those impacted by the explosion. Families that remained displaced at that time were to receive $2,000 in immediate assistance while families who were temporarily evacuated were to receive $250 to cover immediate costs tied to the evacuation.

Read more: $50K from Libro Credit Union to help create 35 affordable housing units in London, Ont.

A “steering committee” was developed to determine how to follow through on helping those in need “over the short-, medium-, and longer-term,” according to Libro. It included representatives of Libro in advisory, non-voting roles, as well as representatives from Life*Spin, OEVCA, the London Community Foundation, and community residents. The process helped to protect the privacy of the impacted families and avoid re-traumatizing them, Libro said.

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Merritt now says the team is in the “final stages” of dispersing what remains of the more than $200,000 that was raised in total, with about $160,000 of that having gone to those who were most impacted by the explosion, Merritt said.

“There’s been like four phases, we’re into our fifth phase of fund distribution,” she said. “Our local Superstore made some food donations and that as well.”

However, Merritt adds that while the community response reflected the closeness of the community, the event itself has left a mark.

“There was kind of like a community post-traumatic stress for a little while. Every time there was a thunderstorm for a little while everybody was wondering.”

Now, with the anniversary of the event to be marked during a global pandemic, Aeolian Hall artistic and executive director Clark Bryan is focusing on how that example of community togetherness can be a reassuring light amid global uncertainty.

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“At a community, grassroots level, the experience was just remarkable,” he told Global News.

Aeolian Hall quickly organized a benefit concert, held Aug. 20, 2019, that drew crowds so large that dozens of people ended up listening to the concert in the back lot after the venue itself reached capacity.

“I recall Tara Dunphy from The Rizdales approaching me about the potential of doing a benefit concert to help support the families that were affected by this and just how the musicians all started to come out of the woodwork and say ‘I’d like to play,’ ‘I’d like to help,'” Bryan says.

“It’s interesting too I think in the current perspective, with the artists being often the first to reach out and wanting to help with a lot of social issues. You see this on a global level. And yet, it’s the artists right now who are suffering the most during COVID-19 — they have no work. And I think maybe the time is right for our community to rally behind them and try and help them along to get through this because it is another kind of catastrophe. We don’t want to lose our art and culture, we’re going to lose who we are as people.”

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Read more: ‘This is the definition of community’: Hundreds show for Old East Village benefit concert

As the one-year anniversary rapidly approaches, Bryan spoke to the importance of strong neighbourhoods and of working together to solve problems.

“We do have some strong micro-communities in London. I think sometimes that we need more strong micro-communities in the city,” he says.

“Sometimes people, you know, they drive into their garages and go to their basement computers in the suburbs and don’t know their neighbour very well. We could all benefit from getting to know our neighbours and building that strong community for the times that we need each other and just for the sheer joy outside of those times too.”

As for the community spirit within the Old East Village, Bryan says that’s the key to rebuilding.

“If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t see the revitalization that has happened down there. It came from the people.”

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