Windsor store explosion remembered 60 years later

The damaged exterior of the Metropolitan Store on Ouellette Avenue in Windsor is seen on October 25, 1960. Photo courtesy Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive/University of Windsor.

A dark chapter of Windsor’s long history was written 60 years ago Sunday.

On the site of the former Metropolitan Store on Ouellette Avenue, near Park Street West, sits an office building, a tattoo parlour, an eatery, a hair salon, and the former Crazy Horse saloon. Many people walking along the sidewalk may not be aware that in the fall of 1960, that was the scene of carnage and death.

The store, part of a national chain that began in Winnipeg in 1908, was on the same level as Woolco or Zellers. On three sales floors, the Windsor store sold a wide variety of goods at discount prices, and there was a lunch counter at the rear of the store.

The Windsor location, which was busy with shoppers shortly after lunchtime that Tuesday afternoon, October 25, 1960, exploded, killing 10 people and injuring about 100, in what stands as the deadliest gas explosion in Canadian history.

The blast was caused by a broken gas line in the store’s basement. It blew out the store’s rear side and caused the second floor to collapse, trapping many customers and employees.

The explosion brought hundreds of people to the scene, combing through the rubble to rescue those who were trapped. The aftermath of the explosion was captured for days afterward by staff at the Windsor Star. Reporter Walt McCall, who happened to be near the store on his day off, helped rescue people before going into the office to write about the explosion. He won a Canadian Newspaper Award for his reporting.

In a remembrance posted on Windsor Fire and Rescue’s official website, firefighters recalled being asked to report for duty to help with the rescue and having to deal with the gruesome scene.

“Firefighters had to support the back end of the store since the main floor had blown right out into the alley,” according to the account. “There was glass everywhere and many of the injured were across the street at the time of the explosion and injured by flying glass…the scene was quite a gory mess for the firefighters who had to extricate the bodies.”

It turned out that the explosion was not the first time firefighters were called to the store to deal with a furnace issue. According to Windsor Fire, crews had been called to the store previously because smoke from the stoker furnace spread throughout the sales floor.

Investigators determined that a plumbing contractor did not follow proper safety procedures before the blast. The store’s furnace was in the process of being changed from oil to gas at the time of the explosion. Two of the contractors who were working that day were found guilty of criminal negligence and had their licences revoked.

The remains of the store were eventually torn down.

History Television, the Canadian version of the History Channel, included a dramatized account of the blast in the third season of its series Disasters of the Century, which can be viewed on YouTube.