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On the days that it doesn’t rain, Pietro Galea drives home to water his garden.
The 80-year-old Italian immigrant hobbles up to the house – now fenced-off – where he and his wife Maria have lived for nearly 40 years. Behind the bungalow where they raised six children, his tomato and zucchini plants thrive. He harvests some and carries the basket to his car, pausing a moment to stare at the cratered ground only two doors away.
“[The garden is] his happy place. I have a father, [and it’s] the same thing,” said Vito Picicci, an architect assessing the Galea properties. “That’s what they do in the summer. You take away their garden, they’re lost.”
Two months after a house explosion devastated the community, 37 houses remain empty after being deemed structurally unsound, and the displaced residents of Hickory Drive in Mississauga have no concrete time frame to provide hope or answers. What was once a well-knit community is now a virtual ghost town, save for a rhythmic hammering echoing from several houses. Potted plants are wilted and the grass is yellowed. The only cars that drive through the neighbourhood slow to a creep as they pass by the site where three houses once stood. The largely elderly immigrant community, overwhelmed by paperwork and bureaucracy, is bracing for a lengthy battle to return home – or what is left of it.
“Every year for everybody is a precious year. You don’t know what happens tomorrow,” said Carlo Galea, Pietro’s son. The younger Galea lives directly across the street from his family house. Both he and his parents have been forced to evacuate until their houses are deemed structurally viable.
Yellow slips of paper are attached to the front door of three-dozen residences – an assessment by the city building inspectors that the house is unsafe to live in, or even walk through, without supervision, Mississauga Fire Chief Tim Beckett confirmed.
None of the Galea family was nearby on that afternoon of June 28, when a massive explosion ripped through the suburban neighbourhood, destroying three houses and spraying debris over a blast zone larger than a city block. Neighbours who were home at the time shielded themselves from the impact in door frames, behind trees and under ladders. Authorities have yet to publicly release a cause, but officials confirmed the blast originated at 4201 Hickory Dr., killing the two homeeowners.
This was not the Greater Toronto Area’s first large explosion – in 2008, a massive fireball from the Sunrise Propane blast killed a plant worker and firefighter, evacuating thousands of residents and costing the city of Toronto $1.8-million to clean up. Already, the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates the damage from the Hickory Drive explosion will be in the millions, exceeding the propane blast. The force of the impact was localized, but caused severe damage across the neighbourhood.
Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who spent many days after the blast speaking to displaced residents, commends the response from first responders at the scene and fire officials who continue to work to help residents get home.
“We continue to maintain important working relations to provide assistance,” she said in a statement.
But as the displaced families wait for answers from authorities, they are caught up in limbo as the granular insurance process plods along.
Almost immediately after police and fire crews are done at the scene, each homeowner is assigned a claims adjuster, said Steve Kee, a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
In order to move back in, homeowners or their insurance companies are required by the city to hire an engineer to investigate the extent of the damage, assess for rebuilding or demolition and indicate any need for remedial work, such as asbestos abatement. When damage eclipses $25-million, a public report is released, said Mr. Kee, noting the damage currently falls below that threshold.
Progress is contingent upon property-damage assessment, access to restoration crews, seasonality and the minutiae of bills and other paperwork needed to complete a claim. Contrary to the hopes of residents, the process of determining and quantifying the damage can move at a glacial pace, partly due to the age of some houses in this neighbourhood. Older houses often have problems with asbestos, something residents learn for the first time as crews tear down damaged walls. Restoration crews have to be cautious and follow strict guidelines for removing it safely – the added hazard slows work significantly.
Resident Hayee Khawaja is further along in the process than others, largely because his house, constructed in 2006, was easier for engineers to assess and was asbestos-free. His insurance company rented a place for him and his family to live while his house on the corner of Hickory and Rathburn is assessed for interior and exterior damage. He said they gave him an estimated six to eight months before the family could return home, and exterior work may begin as early as this week.
Once the assessment is completed, the property owners must obtain a city building permit before they can start doing any work.
The city has packaged together a number of measures to ease the financial burden of the explosion. The process of obtaining a building permit has been expedited for affected homeowners, says Carley Smith, a spokesperson for the city of Mississauga. Already, four houses have received demolition permits and three others have applied for permits to restore the damage.
Property taxes are still due for the vacant properties, but all residents displaced by the explosion have been given appeal forms, which allow them to reduce or eliminate their tax payments, the city says.
The insurance process can be alien to many of the residents. As Pietro shuffles behind the house to check on his garden a second time since arriving that day, Maria attempts to enter the house through the open front door, only to be gently ushered out by restoration workers on site.
Resident Fatima Oliveria is paying rent out of pocket after insurance couldn’t find her a home that would accommodate her dogs, and hotel bills were piling up. Although her own property on Hickory Drive is fenced off, she says many of her neighbours who have been cleared to go home are actually afraid to do so.
“They don’t know what else is going to happen, because no one can determine what the problem is,” she says. “I spoke to my neighbour across the street, she has three little kids. The city said it’s okay, her house is brand new, but she has anxiety about going back home. We don’t know what else may come up that we have to take care of now.”
The Galeas, staying with a family member in Vaughan, are frustrated by the tepid pace of the engineering reports. The elder Galeas struggle with their English and sheaves of documentation only cause more anxiety, forcing them to rely on their children for help.
“For me, there is questionable information that has to be answered still,” says Carlo. His house suffered damage to the beams and walls. His parents’ place suffered significantly more damage, and may have to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch.
Among those waiting for answers, strikingly, not many are particularly concerned about what caused the explosion. Even as details emerged about the two homeowners at 4201 and their difficulties, people had formed their own theories about what led to the incident. Barbara Castleberry, 42, who lives in a townhouse behind the Galeas’, said that the only people still waiting for the police to release a cause are those far outside the blast zone.
“I’m not curious about what happened, but I would like to know what will happen to that property,” she says, adding that she was mostly just relieved no one else was killed in the blast. “People keep asking, well, can’t you sue them or get the money out of that? I don’t think anyone wants to get in a legal battle over a hole in the ground.”
And although she is “realistically” giving herself a year or more until things are sorted, a length of time most residents have resigned to, she is adamant that she will live in the neighbourhood again.
“I am going back to my own home, there’s no ifs and buts about it. It always felt great. It’s really peaceful in the back … [the neighbours] have their tomato and zucchini plants, one person even had chickens. I always called it Little Tuscany,” she says. “Nothing has changed that view. I’m going to go back to my home and I’m going to stay there.”
Her view is clearly shared by her neighbours who periodically stand vigil outside their safe havens, torn asunder by an incident whose fallout will reverberate for years to come.
“[My parents] have anxiety. They’re constantly, always here because they feel like they have a home to go to,” said Carlo, watching them hover quietly outside their house. “But the reality is, they don’t.”
What caused the explosion?
The criminal investigation into what happened is still ongoing, according to officials who say it has not been determined whether the explosion was accidental or deliberate.
Robert Walter Nadler and Diane Page, 55, were the married homeowners at 4201 Hickory Dr. Mr. Nadler was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982. He was released on full parole in December, 1991, and the parole board removed certain conditions of his parole in the years to come, including one to pursue psychological counselling. It is unclear when he married Ms. Page, a devout Catholic and former teacher, but family members say they met at church. She had been estranged from her siblings and her two adult children for years before her death.
The house was purchased by Mr. Nadler’s parents and records show Mr. Nadler took out a second mortgage on the property in 2013, only two years after his father passed away. Neighbours said the house often looked neglected after his death, and Mr. Nadler and Ms. Page were reclusive. Private letters and documents strewn across the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the explosion suggested the couple may have struggled financially and emotionally, with notes found pleading to God for help paying bills.
After the blast
4192 Hickory Dr.
Carlo Galea built the house himself, moving in around 2006 across from his childhood home. The house has been deemed structurally unsound and Mr. Galea can only enter when supervised by an engineer. Frustrated by the insurance process, he’s trying to get a second assessment and frets about the house’s lowered value. He’s exhausted after months of sleeping in hotel rooms and on friends’ couches.
4187 Hickory Dr.
Pietro and Maria Galea moved into their red brick home in 1979, raising six children. They were visiting friends a block away when the explosion happened. They still don’t know if their house can be saved and are living with family in Vaughan. Mr. Galea returns to his garden everyday, growing zucchini and tomatoes.
4225 Hickory Dr.
Fatima Oliveira was already fighting an insurance battle over a 2013 flood at her house before the explosion. She’s been forced to pay for a rental that’s big enough for her family, nine dogs and many other pets. Her backyard pool is overgrown with algae and she leaves work to make regular visits and deal with complaints. The owner of two restaurants, she says she is “literally about to lose everything.”
4185 Hickory Dr.
Hayee Khawaja moved into the house in 2009 and lives there with his brother and both their families – six people in all. His insurance is paying rent at a temporary residence. The external damage has been already assessed and work may begin as early as this week, while the internal damage is “significant.” Mr. Khawaja estimates it will be six to eight months before the family can return home.
Townhome 6, Hickory Village
Barbara Castleberry and her son were both home when the explosion happened, but were shielded by a door frame. Ms. Castleberry sat vigil outside her fenced-off property for weeks before she could access documents needed to file paperwork. Her son was headed to camp the weekend after explosion, and friends rallied to raise enough money to buy him a new Scouts uniform. Her house may need to be rebuilt. She doesn’t expect to return for at least a year.
4201 Hickory Dr.
Robert Walter Nadler and Diane Page owned the house that was the source of the blast. The pair, who were both killed, were, by all accounts, reclusive. Private letters and documents strewn across the neighbourhood’s debris showed the couple struggled financially and emotionally. Mr. Nadler was a convicted murderer. The house no longer exists. The cause of the explosion has still not been released.
Editor's note: An earlier digital and print version of this story incorrectly stated that Robert Walter Nadler was convicted of first-degree murder in 1982; however, he was in fact convicted of second-degree murder. This version has been updated.