Ten years ago on this day, a pre-dawn explosion sent thousands of terrified residents running from their homes — some still in their pyjamas — as orange balls of flames and plumes of smoke filled the sky.
The blast shattered windows, ripped doors off their hinges and scattered debris for kilometres. Some homes in the blast zone would later have to be completely rebuilt because they were so damaged.
“I was lying in bed, and next thing you knew I was on the floor,” area resident Johnny Arciero would later recall to CityNews.
“The light fixtures fell, the windows exploded. Cracks in the walls, cracks in the ceiling — basically the house was falling apart.”
The explosion happened at the Sunrise Propane plant at 54 Murray Rd. in the Keele and Wilson area, setting off a six-alarm fire that 200 firefighters would struggle for hours to contain.
After a lengthy investigation, the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office determined the initial explosion on the morning of Aug. 10, 2008 happened when propane vapours ignited during an illegal tank-to-tank transfer.
The company had been ordered by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) to stop the risky transfers two years earlier, but continued the practice.
Sunrise Propane worker Parminder Saini was killed that morning. The 25-year-old Sheridan College student had only been in Canada for eight months. His body would not be found in the wreckage until several days later.
Sunrise Propane and its directors, Shay Ben-Moshe and Valery Belahov, were later found guilty of nine provincial-offences charges pertaining to environmental and labour regulations. They were found to have failed to take proper safety measures, or to have provided adequate training for workers.
The government would later shut down operations at all three of Sunrise Propane’s facilities.
Twelve-thousand people in the 1.6-kilometre radius of the plant were ordered out of their homes by police that day. A large stretch of the nearby Highway 401 was shut down as crews responded to the fire.
The smoke was so thick a partial no-fly zone was put in place over the area.
Toronto Fire District Chief Bob Leek showed up to the scene on his day off. The 25-year veteran later had a heart attack and died while helping his colleagues fight the flames.
A park a short distance away from the former Sunrise Propane plant now bears his name.
There was confusion and anger in the days following the blast, as authorities kept people from returning to their homes because of the toxic asbestos that had been detected in the neighbourhood following the blast.
Angry homeowners also wondered how such a facility was ever allowed in a residential area.
Some residents were displaced for months, and even years, as they fought with insurance companies and fixed and rebuilt their homes.
It cost $1.9 million to clean up the debris from the blast.
Almost six years to the day after the explosion, An Ontario superior court judge approved a $23-million settlement for a class-action lawsuit launched by North York residents affected by the incident.
“A lot of people are suffering, and they’re hurting, and they’re waiting for what they deserve,” said plaintiff James Erceg at the time.
“It traumatized me in a big way.”