CityNews Rewind: The Day The Uptown Theatre Collapsed

It simply wasn’t supposed to happen. An inquest that started Monday will take a closer look at one of the most shocking yet heroic tragedies in recent Toronto history – the collapse of the Uptown Theatre at Yonge and Bloor Sts.

It was December 8, 2003 and crews from Priestly Demolition were taking down the building on Balmuto St. when something went horribly wrong. Without warning around 10:35am, the already weakened structure collapsed, sending a wall of dirt and rubble onto several adjacent businesses – including the Yorkville English Academy.

Augusto Cesar Solis, a 27-year-old from Costa Rica, was one of the adult students inside the school. So was a 10-year-old South Korean boy named Tommy Cho. When rescue workers dug through the rubble they found the man’s body and the incredible sacrifice he made to save a young stranger. Solis shielded Cho from the full brunt of the damage and gave his life so that the child could survive. The boy emerged with fractured legs – but very much alive.

Crews dug through the dirt with their bare hands, desperately looking for survivors. But somehow, Solis emerged as the sole fatality. In all 14 people, including two other children, were taken to hospital. But for a quirk of timing, it could have been a lot worse. “It was break time,” teacher John Harrington recalled that day. “Most of the people were on their way out. A few more minutes either way, and the results could have been very different.”

As it was, the scene was one of utter chaos and fear that literally struck in the heart of the downtown core. “People were screaming and you would hear children crying and there was blood,” a woman named Sandy remembered. “I literally thought I was gonna die. I saw things flying. I thought that was it.”

Ken Syinide was in his office when the accident happened. “I got up from my desk to make a photocopy because we work for trustee in bankruptcy, and the second I got up, everything came down and crushed my desk,” he shuddered. “And I’m alive.”

One unnamed mother was frantic with panic after her daughter called her from inside the building on her cell phone. “She was afraid that more of the roof was going to collapse,” the distraught parent related. “I told her to get under a table, protect her head.” She breathed a sigh of relief when her child walked out to an ambulance relatively unscathed.

Priestly Demolition was fined more than $200,000 for violating the Health and Safety Act. And they also face legal action by the Academy, which has never reopened after the tragedy, although its website is still up and running.

To see our original story on this tragedy, click the video links above.

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