Residents flee after power vault explodes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Structural and building engineers were expected to spend today assessing the damage after a huge explosion July 20 made a 22-storey building "uninhabitable" and left 900 people homeless.

Azam Mahmood and his two young children were among the residents of 2 Secord Ave. in East York who were forced to bunk with family and friends or spend the night in a nearby elementary school.

The Mahmoods, who were among those who found shelter at Secord public school, were still in their pyjamas.

"We brought nothing with us when we left the house," said Mahmood, a five'o-clock shadow on his face. "We had no idea we would not be allowed back in. I have nothing, no wallet, no cellphone and no money," he said.

"I can't even call my boss to tell them that I can't come to work."

In fact, Mahmood and other residents may have to wait several days before the building is declared safe and they can return home.

The calm of a lazy Sunday morning was shattered when a fire in an underground hydro vault caused a huge explosion that could be heard blocks away.

The explosion was so severe it lifted pavement at the front of the building, caused extensive damage to cars parked nearby, shattered the glass in the lobby, and even lifted a fire truck, said Shamim Naheed, who was standing with her 1-year-old son just metres from the spot where the explosion surfaced.

Within minutes, smoke from the fire had spread through the ventilators to the 20th floor.

Nine firefighters were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation, concussion and burns.

Firefighters quickly determined there was no danger of PCBs or other toxic chemicals being released.

Smoke continued to fume from the broken pavement into the night, releasing a pungent smell.

Firefighters and police officials were on the scene all night, hoping to clear the area so that structural engineers could enter the building, said Division Cmdr. Ron Jenkins with Toronto Fire Services.

"We have excessive water in the basement, and we are still dealing with some residue from the fire, so until those concerns are addressed, we can't safely let any engineers in to assess the building," said Jenkins yesterday evening.

Jenkins said the cause of the explosion, which left the building "uninhabitable," is under investigation.

"It is not uncommon for a transformer to blow up. This is a substantial explosion. Why it seems to be so severe, we don't know," he said.

After the explosion, a number of residents were "stuck in place due to mobility reasons," Jenkins said.

Initially, there had been hope they could remain in the building, but last night the decision was made to remove everyone, some with the help of "stair chairs," he said.

Mohammad Khan's wife and newborn baby had been in their 20th-floor apartment all day, unable to leave due to the thick smoke in the hallways.

He spent the entire day pacing in the rain, waiting for them to come down. "I just want to see them," he said last night. "I am just glad everyone is safe," he said, adding that he had spoken to his family on the phone. He was staying with some friends nearby for the night.

At the nearby school, Canadian Red Cross and Salvation Army workers set up cots and food for more than 150 people who had no alternative – even providing a separate area for dogs and cats.

Toronto police said they will also be investigating, but as of last night had not yet been allowed into the building.


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