One year out, Wheatley residents still experiencing anxiety, uncertainty after explosion

An explosion in downtown Wheatley brings a building down to rubble and severely damages surrounding structures. (Photo credit: Kathryn Parent, Photography by Phos³ via Twitter)

As work continues to core and cap an abandoned gas well at the site of a devastating explosion in Wheatley a year ago, residents who live in the area are still in suspense.

Wheatley resident Christina Richardson, who witnessed the explosion first-hand, can still vividly remember the day — and the moment it happened.

Richardson said it was a normal day at work at Adamson Guardian Pharmacy on August 26, 2021, which at the time was just located just across the road from the site of the explosion.

Everything seemed normal, that is, until about 5 p.m. when the firefighters showed up for a third time to close off the street because another gas leak was detected.

“We just kept going business as usual,” said Richardson. “My day ends and I head to Tilbury to pick up my son (from daycare) and get home at around 6:12 p.m. and as soon as I step out of my vehicle, there is a huge explosion and from where I live you can see up-town… We watched the building go up and come back down.”

Municipal officials in Chatham-Kent say there have been no gas emissions detected at the explosion site since July 6, 2022. But they can’t provide any guarantees more leaks won’t happen, either.

That uncertainty mixed with the vivid memory of the explosion a year ago is the source of ongoing concern from residents like Richardson.

“Even now with them opening up part of the [main intersection in Wheatley], driving to that stoplight gives you a little bit of that anxiety because you don’t know,” said Richardson. “As much as they tell you that it’s safe, you have that thought in the back of your mind that it could happen again.”

The pharmacy where Richardson works was closed for the day by the time the explosion took place, but she said all of the windows were blown out by the force of the blast. The business has since reopened in a different area of Wheatley.

Richardson said she was also fortunate enough to be able to stay in her home after the explosion took place, but her thoughts go out to some of her neighbours who were forced out of their homes for months — some of whom are still working to move back in.

“I know a lot of people who were kept out of their homes until a few months ago and they’re still trying to work with restoration companies to get their houses back together and to get back into their homes,” said Richardson. “I can’t imagine having to live in five different rentals over the course of a year because you’re so unsure of what’s happening at your own home that you own.”

But there are some bright spots amid the dark memories of the explosion and the months that followed.

As Richardson pauses to reflect on the sombre anniversary, she is also reminded of how the community rallied together after the event with initiatives like “Wheatley Strong.”

“The people of Wheatley have pulled together and it’s a stronger community than it probably ever was,” said Richardson. “I think if anything, that’s what the explosion did – it brought us all closer together… it’s like a giant family now… But even a year later, there’s still that anxiety.”