It was one year ago Friday when London’s Old East Village community was rocked by a car crash and then a massive explosion that injured at least seven people, wiped one house off the map, left several others damaged beyond repair, and forced the temporary evacuation of dozens of families.
What began as a report of a sedan colliding with the front of a house along Woodman Avenue, a small residential side street just northeast of Dundas and Quebec streets, within minutes turned into a race against the clock to evacuate residents and emergency personnel before the worst fears of firefighters were realized.
The vehicle, with an alleged impaired driver behind the wheel, had crashed into the gas metre of 450 Woodman Ave., resulting in a significant rupture that, less than 15 minutes later, ended with a blast that knocked people at the scene off their feet, shook homes blocks away, and even registered on an array of infrasound sensors 23 kilometres north of the city near Elginfield, Ont.
A 23-year-old Kitchener, Ont., woman, Daniella Alexandra Leis, was arrested the night of the incident and faces a dozen charges, including eight impaired driving-related counts and four of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. That matter remains before the courts, with the accused set to appear in mid-October.
By the time Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal had turned the site back over to the city more than 15 hours after the initial call, as many as 60 fire department personnel had come and gone from the scene, extinguishing flames and hot spots at multiple properties, and sifting through what remained.
Officials say a dozen of the city’s 14 fire halls became involved in the incident over that time period, and as many as 23 of the department’s 27 apparatuses attended Woodman Avenue for various durations.
In all, it was a massive response for a call that had quickly turned a run-of-the-mill Wednesday night into one first responders wouldn’t soon forget.
The initial call
“Engine 2, Rescue 2, Car 2, 450 Woodman Ave.,” the radio blares. It’s about 10:38 p.m.
The voice coming over the speaker is that of Deanna Foisy. A communications operator with the department for about five years, Foisy had been called in from vacation earlier that day to cover for an ill colleague.
“Caller’s reporting a vehicle has hit their house damaging the gas line. Driver’s still inside the vehicle. Unknown if there’s entrapment. Respond Code 4.”
The commotion prompts neighbours along Woodman to go outside to check on the scene. Some, noticing the driver is still inside the car, begin to work at freeing the occupant from the vehicle.
Nearby, natural gas can be heard spewing from the ruptured line. Unbeknownst to many, the gas is both leaking into the air and accumulating inside the home.
Less than 700 metres away on Florence Street, members of Fire Station 2 are already geared up and heading out. Within moments, they will be the first firefighters at the scene.
“A call that close to the fire hall — we know that as soon as we jump on the trucks, we’re going to be arriving very soon,” said Captain Randy Evans, a 26-year department veteran.
“There is a definite adrenaline kick,” he said. “We’ve got to be on our game really quick. We don’t have time to prepare or think about the call.”
It’s 10:40 p.m.
Evans, riding on Rescue 2, is first to arrive and finds a heavy police presence and a number of bystanders.
With the driver already removed from the vehicle, later to be taken into custody, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the collision and extrication call they were anticipating.
“Believe that we hear some gas leaking, we’re just investigating. At this time we do not have any occupants in the vehicle,” Evans calls over the radio.
“You could hear the gas and you could smell it,” he recalled this week. “If it had just been expelling into the atmosphere, it would have been a whole different situation. But unfortunately, the house was filling up and we wouldn’t have known that until we had our monitors in the house.”
Evans comes back onto the radio shortly afterward to say that London police had cleared the two houses directly beside 450 Woodman Ave., and that firefighters would be entering the home to search for any occupants.
“There was some question if people were still in the primary house,” Evans told 980 CFPL. A woman and her young daughter lived in the house and were home at the time of the crash. “We had to search that house. We don’t leave any stone unturned. We had crews that quickly geared up and grabbed the appropriate equipment … and we were inside that house.”
About a minute after Evans, District Chief Steven Baker is heard on the radio asking Foisy when Union Gas officials estimate they will arrive.
“Thirty minutes. Three-zero,” Foisy replies.
“Thirty minutes. Roger.”
It’s 10:45 p.m.
Moments after entering the residence, the gas monitors Evans and the other firefighters are carrying begin to go off. Gas levels inside are at an explosive range.
“That’s where all our training and the things that we do daily in the hall to practise kick in, as they should,” Evans said.
At the communications centre, Union Gas officials are being contacted about the alarming news.
“When the crews said that the gas was in explosive range … that’s when things start to get tricky,” Foisy said in an interview this week. “Now there’s a heightened sense of danger and there are different protocols that have to be put in place on scene.
“The only thing that we can do at this point is wait for further information or instruction from on-scene while notifying the outside agencies of the information that we’re gathering.”
Concerns about a possible explosion prompt crews — who were inside for less than 30 seconds, Evans says — to quickly pull out of 450 Woodman Ave., and begin evacuating the neighbourhood.
“I was with an incredible bunch of firefighters who have a great deal of skill and proficiency, and we quickly pulled out of that house and moved to the front,” Evans said.
Once outside, attention also turns to getting fire department vehicles, some parked right out front, away from the home as quickly as possible.
“We need those trucks. We need to have the capabilities of those trucks,” Evans says.
“So we were moving them back out of a potential blast zone. And then from there, we started a systematic evacuation of houses. I think the initial was five houses to the north, five houses to the south.”
As those plans continue, more police arrive on the scene. Paramedics are also staged nearby.
It’s 10:50 p.m.
“At that point, you’re thinking, ‘OK, Union Gas is going to come eventually and they’ll turn everything off, and everything will be fine,’ which does happen on most of our calls,” Evans said.
“But we plan for the worst. And unfortunately, this was the worst.”
With evacuations still underway, the ruptured gas line — now leaking for more than 10 minutes — prompts District Chief Baker to come back onto the radio.
“Could you perhaps contact Union Gas again and tell them that we’ve got explosive range of natural gas that is within the residence?”
Twenty seconds later, 450 Woodman Ave. explodes.
“Mayday, mayday! We need more crews at this location! … Mayday!” It’s about 10:51 p.m.
“We have one firefighter down! We have one firefighter down! We are at the corner of Woodman and Queens!”
The voice yelling over the radio is Evans, who had been standing on the opposite side of the street with a police officer when he and several others were blown off their feet.
“It was the loudest thing you definitely have ever heard,” he remembered.
Back at the communications centre, Foisy broadcasts the mayday call to alert everyone on scene.
“It’s one of those things that you always train for and hope you never have to use,” Foisy said.
The mayday was the first she’s had to call, outside of training, during her time with the department, she says.
“I can tell you it’s probably one of the worst things you can have to experience, but your training kicks in and everything that you’ve ever been taught, just with the adrenaline and the stress, it just kind of takes over.”
The blast all but obliterated 450 Woodman Ave., from which Evans and several other firefighters had evacuated minutes earlier. Had it not been for their gas monitors, they may have still been inside.
“We would have been in the basement. We would have been upstairs. We would have been searching that house from top to bottom,” he said.
Debris from the explosion, including pieces of wood, bricks, glass, and household objects, is sent hurtling into the street and into the air, raining down on those nearby, some of it on fire.
“I was struck by a lot of debris,” Evans says.
“There were walls passing by us, roofs landing on us. Big stones that they use in the construction of those houses for the windows — they weigh like 200 pounds — they were firing past us.”
Some flaming debris lands on the roofs of nearby houses, setting a number ablaze. Fire officials said at the time that falling debris was to blame for fires in at least seven other structures. Some homes on neighbouring Charlotte Street are also damaged by the blast.
Amazingly, no one is killed, but the explosion sends at least seven people to hospital, including one civilian, two police officers, and four firefighters.
At one point during the radio transmission, about 90 seconds after the explosion, a firefighter can briefly be heard groaning in pain before others come to his aid.
“We had firefighters down right in front of the house and my entire crew from both vehicles, we converged on the scene. Not one firefighter went to seek safety or hid. Every single person that was there, was there at our injured,” Evans said.
“From there, it evolved into an evacuation of our injured and how we were going to proceed.”
With debris littering both directions of Woodman Avenue, the wounded are carried away west down Queens Avenue towards Quebec Street.
“I need an EMS unit to come Quebec and Queens! Quebec and Queens!” Evans yells over the radio.
“We were still concerned of secondary explosions and there was a wall of flames right at us, so we decided to move from that location and extricate our members,” he recalled.
One firefighter, a member of the department for two-and-a-half years, is seriously injured in the explosion and would be hospitalized for a week and a half. The firefighter declined to speak with 980 CFPL.
“We’re just very fortunate that our injuries for that, were …” Evans pauses. “Somebody was looking out for us.”
“We do still have firefighters that night (who) suffered critical injuries that are lifelong injuries that they are dealing with. It was the worst of the worst nights for us.”
Evans, helping triage those hurt on nearby Quebec Street, leaves the scene not long after the blast to stay by the side of those injured.
“I went in the ambulance with our critically injured, I went to LHSC. (The) emergency department was amazing there. The nurses and doctors, I can’t say enough about them. They never once told me to leave. They let me be involved in the care and stay with my people,” he said.
“I held their hand. I was in all the X-rays and the CAT scans. So were the police officers. We had a team of police that were there that were injured and they sat outside making sure that their fellow first responders were OK.”
The impact of the explosion and the flaming debris leaves crews tending to multiple structure fires, including at addresses four houses down from 450 Woodman Ave.
Additional help is called in from other fire stations to help douse flames and flare-ups — a lengthy job that continues well into the morning.
Sifting through the debris
It’s around midnight when Chris Rennie arrives along Woodman Avenue to begin his work. But where to begin?
Crews are still battling at least eight structure fires, while debris covers the ground and smoke chokes the air.
Another matter complicating things: the house at the centre of it all is now a smouldering crater.
Up until that point, Rennie, a 13-year department veteran, had been listening to the radio and had heard media reports of an explosion in the Old East Village.
Around 10:30 p.m., he received a call from the on-scene chief telling him he would be needed along Woodman Avenue. When he was finally dispatched about an hour later, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but judging by the tone of the call, it was bad.
“I didn’t even have the details of what was going on or what had exploded,” he said this week. “So when I arrived on scene, I just remember … (the) debris field was so large.”
“It was just smoke and debris … and fire hoses like spaghetti noodles all over the place.”
Rennie is no stranger to the devastation fire can bring. Having worked on the rigs for 10 years, he had spent the previous two shadowing as a trainee with the department’s Fire Prevention Division.
The day of the explosion is his first solo, on-call shift as an investigator.
“Welcome to it!” he said with a laugh.
Rennie’s initial job that night is to find out what happened — the what, where and why, he says. Over the next several hours at the scene, he wears many different hats.
“I was coordinating the Ontario fire marshal coming down and coordinating with London police and coordinating with media. It was quite the job,” he said.
“For an investigator, we go to lots of different things, and it’s not as simple as like, ‘Oh, the pot on the stove with grease that overflowed and went up in the kitchen cupboards.’ This one you didn’t even know where to start.”
As daylight breaks over the city, the extent of the devastation becomes much more evident.
That morning, fire officials, city police, and the Office of the Fire Marshal map the debris field, using a drone to get a better handle of the size and scope of what had happened.
The blast was so powerful, Rennie recalls finding pieces of debris more than 150 metres to the west down Queens Avenue.
Among the items found scattered near the site are household objects, including a child’s blanket and teddy bear, as well as a pair of heirloom earrings belonging to the homeowner of 450 Woodman Ave.
“When I walked it down to her and showed her what I found, I got a big sentimental story about these earrings. Out of all of it, that was the best moment I had at Woodman, doing that.”
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to dig through and find some of the stuff that may have been important to that family,” he added.
With 450 Woodman Ave. destroyed, investigators won’t be able to go through and recreate the scene as it was beforehand, as is the case with other fire probes.
It isn’t the only property that needs to be investigated. In addition to 450 Woodman Ave., Rennie also visits the neighbouring houses to figure out what caused them to catch fire, too.
“I think that was probably the hardest part — narrowing down each house and what actually caused (the fires). … That was the largest-scale investigation I think I’ll probably have in my career.”
Around 100 homes were evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Most residents are allowed back the following night, excluding those living in the eight homes which had been damaged, including 450 Woodman Ave. itself.
Two homes, 448 and 452, were all but destroyed. Both are demolished days later. A demolition permit for a third home, 446, which was heavily damaged by fire, was filed late this past July. The home was not standing when a 980 CFPL reporter visited the scene this week.
Early damage estimates from the blast are pegged at between $10 million and $15 million.
Rennie ends up spending three days working at the scene, two of them surveying the debris alongside the province’s fire marshal, whose office takes the reins of the investigation shortly after.
“The investigation for the London Fire Department is concluded. Once the Ontario fire marshal takes over, that is the end of ours, even though we’re still working in conjunction to finish the whole scene,” Rennie said, adding he last communicated with the fire marshal’s office in December.
“To my knowledge, he has not put out his report. I have not read it or seen it, so I can’t speak to anything that may be in his report.”
An official with the provincial fire marshal told 980 CFPL this week that its report and investigation into the explosion and fires was complete and that London police were now the lead for any further inquiries.
In an emailed statement, police spokesperson Cst. Sandasha Bough said no further information could be released with the criminal matter before the courts.
An operations manager with the Ontario fire marshal told the London Free Press last August that its findings wouldn’t be released until the charges laid in the case had been resolved.
One year since
A year later, some within the department still find it hard to talk about the explosion without dredging up the emotions they felt that night.
Foisy is one of them.
“I haven’t even been down Woodman. I just, I can’t do it. I just can’t bring myself to go down there. I’ve dealt with it. I’ve discussed it. I’ve sought help for it. I’ve moved on from it,” she said.
“Even just talking about it, I can feel my stress levels, and I’m shaking. I still get a bit of anxiety discussing it. We had a lot of critical incident stress debriefings and everything afterwards.”
She says she’s grateful to have people in her life whom she can fall back on and speak with, including her spouse, who works as a firefighter, and her brother, an advanced care paramedic.
Her son’s birthday being Aug. 14 helps serve as a welcome distraction, she adds. Before being called in that night, the family had been celebrating his second birthday.
“It’s essentially a learning opportunity, because when was the last time we’ve had something of this nature happen? … It just goes to show you that just because it’s a routine call doesn’t mean it’s going to end up being a routine call.”
Foisy said she is also thankful for the work of her department colleagues, including those on the ground and the two others who were with her in the communications centre.
“My co-workers, like my partner Michelle, are absolutely amazing. Our co-worker, Ashley, we called her in for assistance. There were only two of us dealing with everything that was going on that night,” she said.
“Ashley came in, sat down and dove in. … Didn’t even essentially need to be briefed. Just got in there and did it. There are no words that can describe how thankful we are for that.”
“It’s a very wide range of emotions across the scale,” said Jason Timlick, president of the London Professional Fire Fighters Association, on Thursday when asked what the union has heard from members since the explosion.
“The feelings are a wide range, and that’s what I see as well,” he said. Some are very supportive of those who were affected and want to help and assist them and their families, he said. Others, he continued, feel a different way and find it difficult to think about.
“To speak on behalf of over 400 (members) and how they’re feeling, it’s nearly impossible. Actually, it is impossible.”
For Evans, despite being mere metres away from the explosion, the Woodman Avenue call comes with no negative feelings. If anything, like Foisy, it brings up feelings of pride and admiration for crew members and all of the emergency personnel who were working that night.
“I just can’t say enough about them. They acted beyond heroic. So I take great strength in that. As a captain, that’s all you can ask for,” Evans said.
“We do have firefighters that are going to have lifelong injuries from this call, and a lot of them are taking the position that they just want to move on. They’re good. They want to move on. They’re dealing with a lot of stuff.”
“To me, that just proves their character. It proves their strength. I work with some of the strongest people that I’ve ever worked with or I’ve ever known, so I’m very privileged.”
According to Timlick, of the four crew members who were injured, not all have made the return to work in the year since.
“I won’t speak for how they’re feeling or what they’re going through or how they perceive the event,” he said.
“I know that two of them absolutely want nothing to do with media attention or seeking any kind of attention towards it. They simply feel they’re very proud, they did their duty, they did their job, and they’re trying to move on with their life and their family from the very serious injuries that they incurred that night.”
Asked whether he felt any anxiety or dread recalling the events of the explosion, Rennie replied that he wouldn’t necessarily use those terms.
“Definitely your emotions run high when you think about it,” he says.
For him, what sticks in his mind are the actions of his colleagues and way the community rallied around first responders and those on Woodman whose lives were forever changed.
“When I applied for this job, I literally put on my résumé, ‘I want to be part of a highly motivated team.’ And I’ll tell you, that Woodman scene was motivation,” he said.
“From the fire marshal, police, London Fire Department, the firefighters, the community, the businesses surrounding there, the City of London bringing in command post vehicles and Porto-potties — I’ll tell you, that was the ultimate team there.”
Evans and Foisy echoed those sentiments. Both had nothing but praise for the outpouring of support shown by London residents and organizations in the days and weeks after the explosion.
“The support we got from our administration, and even the mayor — the mayor called me at home a week later. That was kind of a nice experience,” Evans said.
“I just want to say thank you to everybody,” he added. “Woodman was a dark day. The Old East Village is rebuilding. The resiliency and the strength that that community has shown is quite humbling.”
“The community, who have all rallied together and just shown so much support and everything for everybody involved, has truly been remarkable,” Foisy said.
At one point in the night, Foisy recalled that communications staff from London police and Middlesex-London EMS contacted the fire department communications centre to see how they were doing.
“There’s nothing I can tell you, in that moment, that feels better than knowing that they’re even concerned and looking out for each other, and the camaraderie, and knowing that we’re all in this together,” she said.
“If anything that comes out of this, it’s knowing that everybody, whether it’s the agencies, the community, everybody, can take something like this and rally together and get through it.”
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