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It’s been nearly a year since a gas leak in this Southwestern Ontario town levelled a pub, closed businesses and forced some to evacuate. The Globe checked in on those affected

Hilary Hyatt works out of a kitchen at the Talbot Trail Golf Club, the temporary home of her café business after its location in downtown Wheatley, Ont., was deemed unsafe due a nearby explosion last summer.Photography by Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The tables were empty and a handful of takeaway orders sat on the counter at the front of Lil’ Hil’s Coffee Shop, waiting for pickup, as the dinner hour approached. That’s when the explosion happened, on Aug. 26, 2021.

The café's owner, Hilary Hyatt, wasn’t there at the time, but she heard it from her home. She jumped into her neighbour’s car and they raced downtown, hearts in their throats. The dust was still settling at the explosion site when they pulled up to her coffee shop on Talbot Road, located about a block from the scene of the blast. Lil’ Hil’s was unharmed, but it looked to Ms. Hyatt as though dynamite had blown up The Pogue, a former local pub.

“We didn’t know if there were any deaths. It was terrifying,” Ms. Hyatt recalled.

As is often the case in small towns, the fire department is made up of volunteers. One of those firefighters, Wheatley Fire Chief Greg Hodgson, is Ms. Hyatt’s husband. She kept calling him that evening, knowing he was busy but praying he’d pick up. The time it took him to answer his phone was the longest three minutes of her life. “It was awful,” she said. “All the firefighters, I know them all personally. It was traumatizing.”

Like many other business owners in downtown Wheatley, the explosion left Ms. Hyatt in a bind. She couldn’t reopen the café because authorities deemed it too unsafe.

At first, she set up a white food tent in the parking lot of Taylor’s Fish Company, down Erie Street towards the lake. It wasn’t ideal, but it was wonderful cooking on a flattop stove outside as the trees started to turn, heralding the arrival of fall. “We appreciated that, just to keep doing what we love doing.”

As winter approached she moved to Talbot Trail Golf Club, using the clubhouse kitchen space for a new café – Lil’ Hil’s Caddy Shack – where she serves up tacos on Tuesdays and grilled cheese specials.

She’s still at the golf club, but plans to reopen her café at its original location in late fall or winter. “Work is moving pretty slow uptown, just because there’s a lot of businesses and houses, and only so many restoration companies,” she said.

In the meantime, insurance has her covered. And with businesses starting to reopen – the pizza shop, dollar store and Circle K gas station – Ms. Hyatt is optimistic that downtown Wheatley will emerge stronger.

“I’m sure there are buildings that are going to come down and it’s going to be different, but I still am confident that we’re going to get through it together as a community, and it’ll be better than it was before.”


The intersection of Erie Street North and Talbot Road, as seen this past July, with the explosion site at middle. Ms. Hyatt’s café is the narrow building with the brown roof at top middle.

The scene last October, when crews had just begun to clear the rubble of The Pogue, the Irish pub levelled by the igniting natural gas.
‘Wheatley Strong’ signs, like this one on Talbot Road last November, were a common site in the town of 3,000 after the blast.

Barb Carson and her husband Steve Ingram moved to Wheatley about four years ago, a change of pace from the bustle of Burlington near Toronto. They bought a grand old home built at the turn of the 20th century with immaculate original woodwork, hardwood floors and a pool, with plenty of room to host friends and family.

When Ms. Carson’s husband arrived home from his boat-building business around 5:30 p.m. on August 26, 2021, he told her the downtown core was closed again. The couple were talking about the prior evacuations because of gas leaks when they heard a boom. The windows of their house bulged. Pictures fell from the walls.

“I just kind of looked at him and said, ‘Oh my God, it happened.’”

They ran out of their home to see debris flying. Neighbours converged on the corner, and an injured woman sat on a chair outside Ms. Carson’s house.

“Everyone was in shock. And our neighbour here has a couple of small kids, so she was frantic. Her husband wasn’t home from work yet.”

About 20 minutes later the police arrived, but the scene remained chaotic. For Ms. Carson and her husband, the next few weeks were a whirlwind of hotels, friends’ homes and visiting their grown children before they found a rental in Leamington, Ont., about 12 kilometres west of Wheatley. A few months later they found one back in town.

Barb Carson stands outside the evacuation zone last October, with her home behind her.

The couple were able to move back into their home in May. Their insurance agent had insisted the municipality let workers in to winterize the old house – something that didn’t happen in many others, including one across the street. That house is currently being gutted after the radiators burst, damaging the floors and filling the place with mold, Ms. Carson told The Globe and Mail recently.

“If our insurance agent hadn’t pushed, our house would be completely ruined.”

Instead, it retained minimal damage, all of which was covered by insurance. Being forced out of her home for eight months was frustrating, Ms. Carson said, “but there are people all around us who still are not back in their houses.”

“It’s just so sad. My heart is breaking for them.”


David Bilham was out to pick up pizza when the gas ignited in downtown Wheatley. His apartment, rear, is just round around the corner from the explosion site.


Not long after the fire trucks pulled up outside David Bilham’s apartment in downtown Wheatley, responding to the third local gas leak in three months, he ambled out of his front door to pick up the pizza he and his wife Natalie Bilham had ordered for dinner.

Usually, he’d turn left. That day, he turned to walk right. Mr. Bilham got about 25 steps when he heard the explosion; if he’d gone his usual route, he reckons he would have been blown through the windows of the Briar Patch, a gift store fronted completely with glass.

After he heard the blast, he looked up and saw the roof of a building hovering in the air, about 100-feet up. “It was still in one piece ‘til it hit the ground,” he recalled.

“I didn’t know which way to go. I just stood there probably for 15 seconds watching this building go up into the air and fall back down.” He saw an air conditioner shoot out of a building “like a missile”; it would end up clearing five houses before crashing through someone’s roof.

“There’s people screaming from this side, people screaming from that side.”

Firefighters ran toward him and told him to get his stuff from his apartment and get out. He hustled back upstairs, where the explosion had knocked Ms. Bilham off her feet as she stood in the kitchen. The power of the blast had also moved the top half of their building by about half an inch, and blown out the back windows. The couple’s air conditioner had flown halfway across the living room.

For seven weeks, Mr. and Ms. Bilham and their son stayed in a motel with their three cats and three dogs. They eventually found a place to live in town, but their rent jumped from $600 per month to $1,615 – a tough pill to swallow for the couple, who are both on disability payments.

They’re still in the more expensive rental, and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Nor do they think they’ll be moving back into their old apartment, which Mr. Bilham predicts will soon be torn down due to structural damage sustained in the explosion. But he’s still finding it tough to get answers from the municipality.

He said the trauma of the explosion will stay with residents forever. “You still jump when there are bangs,” he said. “We’ll always be living like that. Where’s going to blow up next, you know? It might do nothing for 80, 90 years, but you just don’t
know.”

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Video: What happened in Wheatley?

Learn more about last summer's blast in Wheatley, Ont., and how local officials pressed the province repeatedly for help with the gas leaks plaguing their town.

The Globe and Mail

Globe energy reporter Emma Graney spoke with The Globe and Mail’s news podcast about what went wrong in Wheatley, and why experts tell her another explosion like it is “all but guaranteed.” Subscribe for more episodes.

What are hydrogen sulphide’s effects on humans?

Hydrogen sulphide is a colourless, flammable, corrosive and toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs at low concentrations. Formed by the breakdown of organic materials, H2S can be found in natural gas, crude oil, sewage and swamps.

The gas poses serious health risks, from headaches and breathing problems at low levels to a loss of co-ordination, respiratory paralysis and even death at high concentrations. Gas monitoring and safety equipment are essential when working and living near hydrogen sulphide, which can migrate to the surface through hydrocarbon and water wells among other pathways.

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