The night Toronto shook: Richard Southern reflects on Sunrise Propane explosion

By Richard Southern

Ten years ago today I was anchoring the overnight news on 680 NEWS with Judy Freedman when our newsroom at Bloor and Jarvis streets shook just after 3:30 a.m. It was brief but quite violent, with the windows rattling. A co-worker and I looked at each other wondering if we’d just felt an earthquake. It was Aug. 10, 2008.

Just as we began the process of finding out what happened, the phones started ringing off the hook — something usual at that time of morning. On the line were drivers and TTC workers describing a large explosion and fireball, but all were calling from the west end — Highway 401 and Wilson, and the 401 and Keele. It took me a few calls before I clued in that these callers from the west end were describing the event that shook our newsroom on the other side of the city. Oh my god, I thought, this is big. Callers were describing still seeing big explosions; we were recording them and putting them on the air. Within five minutes all our lines were jammed solid by people who had seen the blast or those that were woken up by it wondering what was going on. I decided I needed to get to the scene, so off I went still not knowing what had happened. Having checked the map I could see that the explosion happened right at Downsview Airport. Could this be a downed plane? That was my best assumption at the time.

‪I could see a huge fire glowing as I approached on the 401. Arriving at the Keele and Wilson neighbourhood as one of the first reporters on the scene was very surreal. Almost every house had its windows blown out and some had damage to the brick. People were standing outside dazed in their pyjamas. I could see lots of debris scattered across the streets and front lawns of the dark residential neighbourhood illuminated only by the glow of the nearby fire. Big pieces of metal and lots of glass were strewn about everywhere. What happened, I asked? “The propane tanks blew up,” they said, “it blew me out of bed!” After having talked to more residents and firefighters I learned that a propane facility, Sunrise Propane, was located right next to this neighbourhood. Across the street from it I stood, going live on 680 NEWS describing the big fire-fighting effort I was watching. I could see the big fire and feel its heat. I could also see big gas tanks. Was I in danger, I wondered? At one point a firefighter come up today and said “You stand here at your own risk, this thing is still dangerous.” Being a young reporter, I did not want to move.

‪The rain started to fall as dawn broke. At this point I was alone but for the emergency crews; the area had been evacuated. I was informed by a firefighter that there was a plan to close the entire 401. 680 NEWS was readying Sky Master 1, our traffic airplane, to get airborne coverage of inevitable traffic chaos that would ensue. The 401 along with the 400 remained closed for 12 hours that Saturday morning. ‬

‪I got wind that a command post was being set up at the nearby Downsview airbase. Wet and cold I decided to make my way over. Having taken a taxi to the scene I found myself wandering through this now empty, evacuated, heavily-damaged subdivision next to the Sunrise site. I had no idea where I was and there was no one around. Out of nowhere a black pickup truck comes driving down the street and I wave it down. Inside are a husband and wife. She’s in tears, looking for her dad who lived in the area. I told them everyone had been evacuated. “Get in” they told me. Off to Dowsview we went where she did find her father safe and sound. I was on-hand as the first news conference was held by the fire chief. It was a few hours later that we heard that ‬Bob Leek, a 25-year veteran of Toronto Fire, had passed away of a heart attack on scene. It was in the following d‪ays that we learned ‬Sunrise employee Parminder Singh Saini died in the blast, which turned out to be the result of ‬illegally transferring propane from one truck to another. Around 200 firefighters battled the seven-alarm fire that morning. Forty 40 people were treated by medical crews, six were admitted to hospital, and thousands were evacuated from their homes

‪I’ll never forget that night 10 years ago. The night that Toronto shook.

Listen to one of the reports below:

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