No guarantee and no timeline; Wheatley officials update gas explosion investigation and evacuation

The aftermath of an explosion in Wheatley, Ont. on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Source: Municipality of Chatham-Kent)

Chatham-Kent officials could not provide a deadline for when evacuated residents could return home during a media conference on Wednesday.

Chatham-Kent CEO Don Shropshire says they really can’t identify right now how much longer this will go on.

“There’s no guarantee that they can find the leak. That’s part of the very difficult discussions,” Shropshire says.

On Thursday Aug. 26, officials believe hydrogen sulfide gas exploded, levelling one building, destroying a section of another, and heavily damaging a number of buildings in the small town core.

INJURED RESIDENTS RECOVERING

In the update Wednesday, officials say 20 people were treated for injuries. Of them, seven were taken to hospital with “relatively severe” but non-life threatening injuries, according to town officials.

One person remains in hospital with undisclosed injuries and officials will not identify the person’s reason for being at the site of the explosion.

EVACUATION STATUS

The town has worked with over 100 people affected by the explosion.

Ten households remain evacuated as of Wednesday, which is impacting 27 people who are now living at various hotels around the region, according to Shropshire.

Officials will not commit to any timelines for when they might be able to go back home, but Shropshire says they are hoping to reopen a small part of the evacuation zone, if it is safe to do so.

CAUSE UNDER INVESTIGATION

“We do not know the source of the gas that caused the explosion,” says Chatham-Kent Fire Chief Chris Case.

Case says they are looking into what caused the explosion and determine the threat level.

“We do not know the situation and at the moment we are trying to work out the threat to make the scene stable,” he says.

Municipal officials say the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources is on the ground in Wheatley as are investigators with the Office of the Fire Marshall.

If they can identify the source of the explosion, and secure the buildings in the two-block evacuation area, officials hope to “shrink” its size to allow some people to go back home.

DEBRIS REMOVAL

Case says however heavy equipment is now on scene in Wheatley, to begin the “methodical removal of debris” at the main explosion site.

“The community will see action on the site throughout today and tomorrow,” says Case. “The rubble is potentially contaminated and obviously may contain asbestos and lead and other components from an old building. That will have to be tested on site and then we have to look at how we dispose of that rubble.”

Firefighters, including members of Windsor’s Hazmat Team, remain on the site in Wheatley 24 hours a day, applying water to the rubble to keep the dust down and to dissipate any potential gas that might leak as they begin to work through the debris.

The entire perimeter is being monitored for gas levels, and officials say they are not picking up any readings.

HELP FOR VICTIMS

Victims Services of Chatham-Kent will have counsellors at the Tilbury Library on Sept. 2 and Sept. 3 from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m. to help anyone who is struggling with mental health.

RETURN TO NORMAL?

Mayor Darrin Canniff says he’s incredibly proud of the “outpouring of support” being offered by the entire region but admits it will be some time before life returns to normal in Wheatley.

“I would love to be able to say, tomorrow. It’s not going to happen,” says Canniff

Canniff says he is “very encouraged” of the response from the province over the last few days, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“It’s essential that we find and remediate the source of this gas cause if we don’t the citizens of Wheatley will be living in fear of when’s the next leak gonna happen,” he adds.