Our special needs family experience of the propane explosion in Toronto



An incredibly loud bang woke up my husband and I. We thought it was thunder - very close we thought. We waited for lightning. But it didn't come.

Instead, there were more bangs, coming a few seconds apart. Still no lightning, no sound of rain. I got up and looked outside, knowing something was wrong, but not knowing what.

I looked out our east facing windows and saw nothing. But the sound of explosions continued. I went to the front door and opened it, and saw people running down the street. At 4 am. I looked again and saw more people running. Still didn't know why, but saw that they were all coming from the west.

Reluctant to go out in my pyjamas, I decided to run onto my front lawn anyway and see if I could figure out what people were running from.

I saw a huge fire, about 4 stories high at that point, and it looked about a block away. I was stunned.

It was the most eerie feeling, seeing that fire, and no one around other than people running away - still no sirens. And I realized that we had to act quickly and on our own.

I watched the fire for a few more seconds trying to determine if it was growing and if it was moving towards us, so that I could try to figure out how much time we had.

Rightly or wrongly I decided we had time to pack - quickly. By this time, my husband was up and I told him about the fire as I walked in the door. He had to see for himself.

He was out there for a second or two when one of the huge explosions and fireballs occurred. He craned his neck back to watch the fireball rise into the sky. "Call 911" he yelled.

I stopped what I was doing for a moment to try, but the line was jammed. They knew, and were on the way. Luckily, for all of us, the fire station is only one block away - about four blocks from the fire site.

I stepped out again to see what he saw, but only saw an even larger fire and black billowing smoke. I took the smoke as a good sign, assuming that it was because help was on site, and the fire fighters were starting to get on top of the blaze.

Not knowing how much time we had, I started grabbing things in order of importance if we had to leave NOW. Grabbed a bag, threw in all the anti-seizure medication for my son, along with all of the syringes and his medication log.

Next, grabbed a small cooler that was handy, and threw in his special drink container, some empty drink containers and straws. Then, bibs and wipes. As many as I could find.

Thought to grab a phone and call my parents and sister, also in the area, to warn them. No good. Phones dead.

Off to get clothes and our kids ready. I knew from the size of the fire that it could probably be a day or two to put it out and deal with the aftermath, so I tried to grab enough for 3 days worth of wear. Tried, and was somewhat successful, but still forgot some items.

But then the power went out. I couldn't see in the dark to figure out what the clothes were. I started to panic, not sure how I was going to get my younger son dressed.

Luckily, my husband had managed to stumble around in the dark and find a power box with an emergency light.

Now that I could see, I grabbed clothes for Daniel and woke him up, telling to hurry up and get dressed because he had to leave right away. Luckily, in his sleepy state, he didn't argue with me or ask too many questions, and did what he was told.

Next off to Giancarlo's room to dress him. I then realized that I had to grab and pack diapers, wipes and bags for him too. Grabbed his knapsack and filled it with diaper supplies. Then remembered his bandanas. His clothes otherwise wouldn't keep him dry for long with drool all over them.

I dressed Giancarlo while he was still sleeping. He only stirred sleepily. I let him be so that I could keep grabbing and packing.

In the meantime, my husband had dressed and was explaining the situation to Daniel, and showed him the fire in the window. It was easily visible high above all of our neighbors homes.

My husband thought to grab bathroom gear and blankets - it was a cool night. That made me think of towels, so I grabbed a bunch I felt I had the basics covered, but took a second to think about what we couldn't easily replace if the fire spread. My son's AFO's came to mind foot braces, and I grabbed them.

Feeling somewhat prepared and thinking that we were safe for now, I started thinking about what else we'd need for three days. How would we keep the kids occupied?

So I grabbed a portable DVD player, a pack of their DVDs and my PC. Somehow, having these 'luxury' items made me feel more prepared than anything else.

Dave had grabbed Giancarlo and was putting him in the van. Not a quick job, so I had another minute to grab the rest of the bags and throw them in the back. Luckily the wheelchair was already there. Then off to close the door of the house. We were finally ready to leave.

It was hard backing out of the driveway, not knowing when we would be back. And wondering if we'd have something to come back to.

By now, most of our neighbours were doing the same thing, backing out of their driveways and getting away from the fire.

All the while, the explosions provided a steady soundtrack to our efforts.

By this time, I'd connected with my sister and her family (my parents were with them) and so now we were on the way to hook up with them. Several kilometres away on the highway, we could still hear the explosions. People were foolishly pulling over on the highway to watch the fire.

Our first stop at a friends home gave us a chance to catch our breath and compare stories with other family. We anxiously watched the news trying to find out what was going on. All sort of false information flowed that first couple of hours.

Although our hosts were quite hospitable, we knew we couldn't stay there, simply because of the stairs. We didn't have the energy to keep G away from them all night. Both kids also kept reaching for the unfamiliar dog, and the dog was getting annoyed.

So, off we went in search of a hotel to hole up until the emergency was over and it was safe to return to our home. We didn't realize at that point just how close the explosion and fire was. Or that the potential for even bigger disaster loomed large.

It took four tries to find a hotel that would give us at least enough room to manoeuver the wheelchair in the room and a fridge to store the drinks G needed to take with his medicine. We'd need to give him his medicine in a few hours.

One of our stops was the Holiday Inn. Like the other hotels, they didn't have much room available. We asked for a wheelchair accessible room only to be told that one was available, but it only had one bed.

Incredibly, the only wheelchair accessible rooms to be had at the Holiday Inn had only a single bed. I was stunned, and not a little angry. Do they really believe that anyone in a wheelchair doesn't have a family? Are they only ever allowed to travel with only one person? How bizarre!

At last we found our way to the Quality Suites near the airport strip. Not only did they have rooms available, they ALL have fridges, and even a sofa, so that we could unwind, be safe and keep our drink supplies fresh. After all we'd been through, it was heaven. Amazingly, it also cost less than a cramped unsuitable room at the Holiday Inn, with no fridge.

We were so pleased with out rooms that we called my sister and parents to join us. They too were grateful to have a comfortable place to wait for more news.

We spent all day in front of the TV, watching the live telecast for any news.

It turned out we were in much more danger than we'd realized. Just moments after we crossed the 401 to find a hotel, the police closed the highway from the DVP to the 400 highway - a 23 kilometre stretch that covers the centre of the city. It's the first time in history that the entire highway has been closed, and it was a huge stretch.

You can imagine the impact on traffic in the city that day.

In fact, the closest east-west streets were closed too. The police evacuated an area just over a kilometre wide from the site of the explosion. Two transport trucks had landed on the rail lines and there was a huge risk of an even bigger explosion.

Had it occurred, it would have likely flattened our home, along with those of all our neighbors.

It's only thanks to the incredible skill and perseverance of our fire fighters and other emergency personnel that the damage was not more extensive.

We're all incredibly grateful to all the emergency workers that literally saved the day for all of us.

We were lucky to get back into our home mid-morning Monday - the first group in our area to be let back in. The house is still standing, but there is a fair bit of debris to deal with - including what looks like asbestos.

Our son can't walk. He crawls. So with a backyard containing debris and possible bits of asbestos, we can't let him enjoy the outdoors. We can't risk that he gets debris on his skin, especially not his hands, since he may rub his eyes or mouth. He easily loses his balance and lands with his face on the grass, mouth open and drooling. We don't need more problems.

D had burning eyes after walking around in the back yard for a very short while. Not sure what he may have grabbed or touched.

We're looking forward to the property cleanup and the air quality testing. Especially after it was found that our natural gas valve was 'seeping' gas.

Our youngest doesn't want to sleep in his own bed yet. Says he has bad dreams. G may have bad dreams too, but he can't tell us. I do too. It's hard to lay down and not remember everything, and worry. My husband and I wake up several times a night. I know we're not the only ones.

How on earth did we create a society that relies on explosive gases to cook our food and heat our homes?

There has got to be a better way.

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