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Londoners who lost homes react to guilty plea in Old East Village explosion

Karen Fisher stands in front of the empty lot where her Woodman Avenue home used to be. Last year's explosion in Old East Village saw the house completely destroyed. Andrew Graham / Global News

For some whose lives were turned upside down by last year’s explosion in London, Ont., a recent guilty plea by the driver of the car that caused the blast has offered a small step forward.

It was a mid-August night in 2019 that would change the lives of Old East Villagers, and just as many outside the historic London neighbourbood, forever.

A 24-year-old Kitchener woman drove her vehicle in the wrong direction down a one-way street after attending a concert downtown. She would later tell police she had consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

The grey Ford Fusion registered in her father’s name only came to a halt when it struck a gas line at 450 Woodman Ave.

The resulting explosion forced the evacuation of an entire neighbourhood, saw four first responders suffer numerous injuries, caused neighbouring houses to be demolished and left Karen Fisher with no home.

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Read more: Kitchener’s Daniella Leis pleads guilty in case surrounding London, Ont., explosion

On Thursday, in a court appearance via teleconference, Daniella Leis pleaded guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm.

An agreed statement of facts was read to the Ontario Court of Justice and a sentencing date was set for Jan. 21, 2021.

Less than an hour after court proceedings wrapped, Fisher shared her reaction with Global News.

While she was thankful to hear Leis plead guilty, Fisher says that feeling was tempered by hearing the statement of facts read in court.

“That, for me, was quite traumatizing and hearing the extent of the injuries that occurred, it puts me into a very unsettled place,” said Fisher.

“Up to this point, for 14 months, I’ve had the luxury of being able to focus on my own experience… I didn’t know the extent of the injuries, so hearing how severe they were, it hits me in a different place than I’ve been able to access so far.”

Click to play video 'Woman who lost home in London, Ont. explosion reacts to guilty plea' Woman who lost home in London, Ont. explosion reacts to guilty plea
Woman who lost home in London, Ont. explosion reacts to guilty plea – Oct 22, 2020

It took more than a year to reach a guilty plea in a case that was delayed, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“The fact that it is moving forward and sentences will be coming up in January, that is something that does feel like it’s progress,” said Fisher.

“Certainly my own personal path to closure hasn’t been a straight line, even today it’s a couple of steps back and a spin-around, but I do feel like we’re getting close to that point where people can have a sense of justice.”

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

With respect to justice, Fisher says she’s not seeking a harsh sentence for Leis.

“Personally, I don’t find that healing comes through harshness. The most difficult part of this, for me, has been not being able to have contact with her,” said Fisher.

“I hope there comes a time when I can actually have a conversation with Daniella. For me, it’s an important part of closure. Whether or not I’ll be given that opportunity, I don’t know.”

Graphic renderings sit on a fence surrounding a plot of land that used to house three homes on Woodman Avenue. Andrew Graham / Global News

Prior to the explosion, Chris Patterson lived next door to Fisher.

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His home was so heavily damaged in the blast that it had to be demolished days later.

Read more: ‘Like something out of a movie’: Next door neighbour recounts London, Ont. house explosion

Patterson says it was good to gain a sense of justice following Thursday’s court proceedings, but similar to Fisher, he’s not seeking harsh punishment for Leis.

“In the beginning, I will say that I probably did, but at this point, I don’t think so,” said Patterson.

“Losing literally everything you own is a really tough pill to swallow. I was angry at that point, but moving on, things happen and you do need to move on with your life.”

While Chris Patterson is glad to see the case progressing, his main focus is moving on with his life. Andrew Graham / Global News

Leis’ lawyer Richard Braiden says his client’s guilty plea speaks of her accepting responsibility for her actions.

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“A guilty plea is always considered an expression of remorse,” said Braiden.

At the sentencing hearing on Jan. 21, 2021, at least five victim impact statements are expected to be read, but additional statements may be added, including a community victim impact statement.