|Here is a news story about what happened in Timmins 30 years ago, Easter Monday 1986.|
I am sure Jennifer and Neil will remember that day...
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As emergencies go, it was the first time and the last time anyone can remember such a large portion of Timmins had been evacuated. More than 5,000 people were ordered out of their homes. Perhaps what is more amazing is that despite the damage, there were no serious injuries reported.
It was Easter Monday 1986; thirty years ago this week. The date on the calendar was March 31. It was overcast. There had been a bit of rain. At first, it seemed like a normal spring morning in Timmins.
But something went wrong at the Imperial Oil Esso bulk plant on Spruce Street, near Ogden Avenue. A worker had set up a hose to transfer gasoline from a 36,000-litre rail tanker car to a bulk fuel tank. Somehow the four-inch fuel line broke away. It was about 8:30 a.m. The worker had not stayed with the tanker car. No one noticed it right away. Roughly 21,000 litres of gasoline poured out of the tanker and onto the ground.
Much of the gasoline pooled into low-lying areas and seeped into the soil. But a lot of it, no one knows how much for sure, flowed into a nearby catch basin and from there into the city’s sewer system.
At 9:08 that morning, an urgent call was made to the Timmins fire hall advising of the gasoline spill. Fire Captain Sonny Farrell and a crew of firefighters responded. The gasoline spill was obvious, with shiny rainbow slicks floating on nearby puddles and pavement. The oily sheen could clearly be noticed between the ties of the railroad tracks.
Captain Farrell alerted Timmins fire chief Bert Schaffer who was on the scene in minutes. Schaffer was surprised at what he saw in terms of thousands and thousands of litres of spilled gasoline.
Schaffer said that the gasoline spill emergency was completely unexpected and unprecedented in terms of the size of the spill. But he said once it became apparent that gasoline had entered the sewer system he knew there was potential for disaster.
“I started making calls you know as soon as we knew the gasoline was hitting the sewers that it could go anywhere,” Schaffer recalled.
And so it did. As firefighters were helping that morning to contain the gasoline that had spilled, their emergency radios suddenly squawked to life.
Spruce Street, near Ogden, is a high point in the city. The gasoline in the nearest sewer quickly began flowing downhill. People living nearby could smell the fumes, but didn’t give it much thought at first.
Unknown to many residents, gasoline had also crossed over into sanitary sewers. Fumes began seeping into homes, coming up through the basement drains.
SUDDENLY AN EXPLOSION...
One woman on Mountjoy Street South, near Cody Avenue, was sitting in her kitchen enjoying a morning coffee. The freezer chest in her basement kicked on. A tiny spark erupted inside the freezer. Suddenly there was an explosion.
It was 9:48 a.m. just forty minutes after the initial call out to the tanker spill. It was less than a kilometre from Spruce Street and firefighters rushed to the scene. Luckily there were no injuries after the explosion in the basement, but there was a minor fire and damage to the house. Firefighters were quick to contain the incident.
As if he sensed the potential danger, Schaffer took a minute to speak to a handful of news reporters at the scene, asking them to get the word out to the public as quickly as possible. This was especially important for Timmins radio reporters that day since there was no Internet and no e-mail. Cell phones hadn’t been invented.
“If they smell gas, get out of the house,” Schaffer implored. “Just get out of the house and then call us!”
Just as the chief was wrapping up the impromptu street corner news conference, the conversation was interrupted by deep resonating Whoomp! Another explosion, this time in a house on nearby Columbus Avenue.
Fire crews raced up the street to find a two-storey home with flames licking out the windows. All the windows had been blown out. Curtains and a curtain rod were lying on the ground across the street. Again, good fortune prevailed. Two adults and five children got out of the house safely, without a scratch.
As firefighters fought that blaze, another thump was heard. Half a block away, the home of a well-known furniture dealer had exploded. Citizens in the streets helped firefighters drag hoses in that direction of that fire. And on it went.
Fast forward thirty years, and fire chief Mike Pintar, spoke with amazement in his voice as he reviewed all the official fire reports from that day. The archived file for March 31, 1986, revealed 47 emergency call-outs that day, seven of them were explosions or fires he said. The other calls, just as serious, were from frightened residents who reported the smell of gasoline in their homes, as fumes seeped in from nearby sewers.
Schaffer recalled the situation was bad and becoming worse as that morning wore on. He said he was alarmed to learn that reports of gasoline fumes were coming from the Melrose area. It seemed possible that gasoline fumes were heading for the river. Schaffer said that was when the decision was made to cut off hydro in Timmins.
“We had to shut it down. Nobody knew exactly where the leakage was going or what house it was going to hit next,” Schaffer remembered. There was also a concern for the municipal sewage treatment plant on Airport Road. If gasoline fumes built up inside that plant, it could spell disaster. The multi-million dollar building could be ruined.
“Well there was a lot of people who were ticked off about that,” said Schaffer. “We bypassed that plant eh, so all the sewage and everything went into the river.”
He said it was a hard decision, but said it was a decision that had to be made.
“If we had lost the plant, if that blew up, we’d have nothing there for weeks, months probably,” said Schaffer.
As it turned out, Hydro was gradually able to restore power to most parts of the city after a few hours when officials were better able to pin down which areas had been contaminated by the gasoline fumes. For the most part it was that portion of Ward Five, south of Kirby and Kent Avenues. Hydro would remain shut off in the part of town.
Schaffer said the next hard decision came after a meeting with Mayor Vic Power and other community leaders. Former mayor Power this week said he remembered the meeting.
“I was notified at about 11 o'clock. We had a meeting over at the fire hall with police chief Floyd Schwantz, fire chief Albert Schaffer, training officer Albert Walsh and Emergency Measures people,” he said.
EVACUATION WAS NECESSARY ...
“It was decided that the whole south …, I guess it’s the southeast quadrant of the City of Timmins, was to be evacuated,” Power remembered.
“It wasn’t that difficult to decide because it was the right thing to do,” Power recalled.
“People were very cooperative. Citizens of Timmins were very cooperative,” said Power. He said people sensed that there was a serious problem, and it could get worse.
That afternoon, local news reporters were ushered into a conference room at the Timmins fire hall for an update. That’s when the mayor revealed that an evacuation order was being issued and would take effect at 5:00 p.m.
Police Chief Schwantz revealed that his officers would be going door-to-door to inform residents of the evacuation order. Ambulances would be made available for anyone needing help to get out of their homes.
As darkness began to fall over Timmins later that afternoon, police cars with loudspeakers patrolled the streets announcing that people were to leave their homes and to register at the Red Cross evac-centre at the McIntyre auditorium.
People were also asked to leave windows open in case there might be a build-up of gasoline fumes in their homes.
Within a few hours, the south side of Timmins was in darkness. No house lights, no street lights. It was eerily black and quiet. The only activity being city police cruisers, slowly patrolling each street to prevent looters from entering the area.
At the same time, city workers had gone through the area, removing heavy iron manhole covers in a bid to re-ventilate the sewers.
As it happened, most of the 5,000 or so residents went to the homes of friends or family members. Other took up every available hotel and motel room. Restaurants did a booming business. Everyone kept their receipts.
Less than 100 residents would take advantage of the care and hospitality offered by the Timmins branch of the Red Cross at McIntyre building.
Timmins was the big story, not just in Northern Ontario, but across North America. ABC News in New York reported about it. It was reported on the CBC National with Knowlton Nash at 10:00 p.m., and an hour later on the CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson.
“It was not the kind of attention we were looking for, but that’s the way it was,” Vic Power remembered.
Timmins awoke the next morning, Tuesday, April 1, knowing it was not some bizarre April Fools’ event. The good news was that no more fires or explosions had happened. The sewer pipes were being infused with fresh air. Chief Schaffer said John Braney of the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office had joined in the effort and managed to get a truckload of ventilation fans shipped to Timmins from several fire departments in the Toronto area. The fans would be placed atop the open manholes to create a huge vacuum to suck out the contaminated air from the sewers.
Northern and Central Gas company employees had arrived from Sudbury, equipped with special “sniffer” devices that could detect gasoline fumes inside a sewer pipe.
Most people were being allowed to return to their homes. Some areas were still declared off limits, but within two days, all the sewers had been cleared by the workers with the sniffer devices.
NO ONE WAS HURT
When all was said and done, former mayor Power said he was pleased that no one was hurt, and that the situation was handled so well by the city’s emergency team. Power said it was a completely unexpected sort of emergency but he said it was a credit to the community and ordinary people that the situation was faced head on and people worked together to get through it.
“But I can’t say enough about the work of Chief Schaffer, Chief Schwantz who has passed away since, firefighter Albert Walsh. I think those were the key players, and someone may read this and say, Gee, they forgot all about me, but that’s what I recall at this time,” said Power.
“There were a whole lot of groups that helped out and volunteers like the Red Cross, I remember Heather Bozzer, and if I mention just one, I know I will neglect others. But there were a lot of community groups that came forward spontaneously,” he said.
“So the crisis was over I would say within 24 hours or so. But you know when you run for mayor you sure don’t think of these things, or at least, I didn’t in those days,” Power said with a smile.