York’s Tait McKenzie Centre becomes an evacuation site

York University’s Tait McKenzie Centre became a hub for emergency response efforts Sunday and Monday, providing shelter for more than 180 area residents affected by the devastating propane blast that caused havoc in a nearby neighbourhood.

At 3:20am on Sunday, a fireball exploded into the air above Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases, a propane and industrial gas sales, storage and distribution facility located about 5 km south of York’s Keele campus on Murray Road, near Keele and Wilson. A veteran City of Toronto firefighter died while battling the violent blaze, and a Sunrise Propane employee was still missing yesterday.

Above: Salvation Army, Red Cross and support services personnel outside the Tait McKenzie Centre, which became an evacuation site following Sunday’s devastating propane blast

The intense explosion damaged homes and buildings in the area immediately surrounding the facility and the ensuing seven-alarm fire took firefighters 16 hours to extinguish. Some 12,000 residents were evacuated from the area. Adjacent roads and both directions of Highway 401 were closed for most of the day and hydro and gas supplies to the area were shut down.

York University’s role in the disaster centred on providing shelter for residents affected by the blast and logistical support for the City of Toronto’s emergency team. The first call from the city seeking assistance came in at around 4am Sunday, said Richard Fisher, York’s chief marketing officer and a member of the University’s response team. Following the call, the University’s standard operating plan kicked into gear.

York provided logistical support in the form of shelter, telephones and computer access to the Internet for city staff and residents. Residents requiring non-emergency medical attention were treated in the Athletic Therapy Clinic in Tait McKenzie by the city’s emergency services staff. York also secured translation services for one elderly resident.

Left: Personnel from the Red Cross were on hand to assist evacuees once they arrived at the University

Following the city’s request, Security Services, Tait McKenzie personnel, University administrators and custodial staff moved quickly and efficiently to convert York’s fitness facility into a coordinated emergency centre. "By the time I arrived on campus," said Fisher. "York staff, City of Toronto staff and volunteers from the Salvation Army and Red Cross were setting up the evacuation centre."

Residents from the area around the blast site started arriving at York at 10:30am, many with just the clothes on their backs, said Fisher. "Some people had time to pack a few possessions and some came by private cars. Five or six TTC buses brought the rest of the evacuees to the University."

Fisher said that officials from the City of Toronto had notified the University to expect up to 6,000 evacuees. As the day wore on, it became clear that only those residents from homes receiving the most damage would come to York.

Above: The BBC News Web site showing coverage of the blast. News reports of the propane explosion were featured on Web sites around the world.

A total of 281 area residents registered with the city and more than 180 people came to the evacuation centre at York. As of Monday afternoon, 51 residents were still in the centre awaiting news about the condition of their homes. The discovery of asbestos in the air around the facility prompted a requirement by the city for independent air testing of the site.

Late on Monday, city officials asked the University to keep the centre open for an additional night to give the remaining residents shelter. York said all indoor sports and recreation programming at Tait McKenzie would be cancelled for today. However, a volleyball clinic for players and coaches has been relocated, and field sports will continue as planned.

At a news conference Monday, Toronto Mayor David Miller thanked York University, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross for their help and support during the evacuation and shelter effort.

Elaine Smyer, manager of emergency planning for the City of Toronto, was also grateful in an interview with YFile. "Thank you to the York University community for a truly great response to this event. Everyone has been very helpful and the University’s response has been wonderful," she said.

In fact, York had practised its response to such an event (see YFile, May 26, 2005).

"Under the Provincial Nuclear Emergency response plan York University is designated as a evacuation reception centre," said Kathy Branton, manager of emergency preparedness for the University. "That means in the event of a nuclear emergency at Pickering, evacuees would come here. Based on the fact that we had done some exercises and tested the plan extensively, York was able to handle a large number of evacuees."

Branton said if the numbers of evacuees had turned out to be larger, the city could second University facilities.

University personnel involved in the evacuation effort rallied from a myriad of campus units, including Security Services, Emergency Preparedness, Custodial Services, Parking Services, Marketing & Communications and the Tait McKenzie Centre.

Following the early morning alert from the city, said Dragan Spasojevic, manager of security operations, the University’s well-rehearsed response went into action. "We were initially told to expect thousands and the Tait McKenzie Centre would become the reception point. Depending on the need the University would then place evacuees in other facilities on campus," he said. "Fortunately that was not necessary."

Preparation for the evacuees involved clearing the Tait McKenzie Centre, including a planned basketball tournament. Staff were also called in to help with the effort to ready the centre to receive the evacuees.

"York provided the facility and custodial staff to keep the area clean, Tait McKenzie staff were on hand to staff the facility, security officers were here, parking services were provided to the residents and there was space for medical services," said Branton.

York’s response also included ordering portable toilets for the evacuees and emergency response staff – and then moving the portable toilets to allow a clear camera angle for the swarm of media that descended on the Keele campus.

"We provided the city with office, clerical and administrative support for their work," said Al Scragg,  who is based in Tait McKenzie as supervisor, facilities administration, for Sport & Recreation and the School of Kinesiology & Health Science. "We also provided telephone lines for the evacuees to use to contact loved ones. York also provided a dedicated telephone line that family members could use to reach those who were evacuated. York staff manned the telephones until 9pm on Sunday night when we handed it over to the city."

Security Services worked with Toronto police to ensure the safety and security of evacuees, including providing a safe haven from reporters seeking to cover the human face of the disaster.

"Everything worked as it should," said Spasojevic. "Teamwork came into play and York was able to respond quickly, professionally and efficiently because of the pre-planning in place."

Story by Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor