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Halifax waterfront rocked by explosion - neighborhood evacuated

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  • RspctFrmCalgary
    Investigation to start Monday into cause of explosion at N.S. grain elevator


    HALIFAX (CP) - Investigators will wait until Monday before probing the cause of an explosion that punched through the side of a grain elevator in a harbourfront neighbourhood, forcing hundreds of people from their homes.

    Gary MacCurdy, chief of fire prevention in Halifax, said the sprawling, six-storey building, used to store grain and wood pellets, needs to be structurally tested to make sure it's safe before officials are allowed in.

    Investigators have said they're looking at the possibility that the cause of the blast and fire, which happened shortly before noon Thursday, was likely combustible dust.

    Particles of dust - from agricultural products, wood or coal - can trigger violent explosions in an enclosed space such as a silo.

    Moisture from humid weather, like Halifax experienced on the day of the blast, increases the chance of a dust cloud igniting and turning into an explosion.

    MacCurdy said the investigators are still puzzled over what the source of ignition was.

    "It's a large facility and trying to determine what the cause might have been is like looking for a needle in a haystack," MacCurdy said Friday. "It could have come from anything, anywhere in the building."

    Witnesses said the blast was so powerful that glasses were thrown from kitchen shelves and entire homes shook. The explosion, which left a pungent smell and smoke hovering over the waterfront in Halifax's south-end, tore off sheet metal from the elevator building.

    No one was injured, even though 10 employees were in the facility at the time helping load a ship with wood pellets.

    Police officers quickly cordoned off the neighbourhood and ordered the evacuation of up to 400 people, fearing there could be another explosion.

    The residents were allowed to return home late Thursday after the fire was extinguished.

    About a dozen officials from all three levels of government, as well as company and insurance representatives were meeting Friday to plan the investigation, MacCurdy said.

    Canadian grain brokers have said they're worried the explosion in Halifax could lead to a long and expensive shutdown of the facility, which stores grain for shipment throughout the Maritime provinces.

    A decision on when it's safe for employees to return to work at the elevator will be made by the federal Labour Department after fire officials give the all clear, said a department official.

    Elke Juckes, vice-president of Halifax Grain Elevator Ltd., said late Friday afternoon that the full extent of the damage hasn't been determined yet.

    The company operates the elevator facility under a lease agreement with the Halifax Port Authority. The elevator receives, stores and ships grains and wood pellets.

    She said prior to the accident the facility had undergone routine safety inspections by the federal government, the local fire department and the company's insurer.

    The company has also installed fans throughout the building to extract dust from the air, a leading cause of fires in grain elevators, and added specially designed doors and windows that would blow out in the event of an explosion.

    "In the explosion . . . the siding and windows were blown out and though this gave the appearance of great damage, it is more correctly seen as a safety valve that worked," she said in a news release.

    One of the worst explosions worldwide caused recently by combustible grain dust occurred in Blaye, France six years ago. The blast knocked down a major part of the facility, killing 11 people and injuring one.

    The Canadian Press, 2003

    08/8/2003 15:36 EST

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  • Halifax waterfront rocked by explosion - neighborhood evacuated


    HALIFAX (CP) - Fire crews battled a blaze at a grain elevator in a harbourfront neighbourhood Thursday after an explosion ripped open the building, sending a fireball into the sky and hundreds of people out of their homes for most of the day.

    Residents in the south-end area of the city said the blast was so powerful that glasses were thrown from kitchen shelves and entire homes shook. By Thursday evening, city spokesman John O'Brien said the blaze had been extinguished and residents were allowed to return home.

    "The fire is under control, it's been extinguished," he said. "The evacuation's been lifted, we're going up to start organizing the residents now. We'll transport them by the bus and start moving them back street by street."

    A cab driver who witnessed the explosion just before noon said he saw a surge of orange fire and heard a loud bang.

    "It was a huge ball of fire and there was a lot of smoke and grain dust," said the driver, who would only give his first name, Art.

    Police reported receiving a call at 11:47 a.m. that there had been a fire and explosion at the silos, which store grain and wood pellets before they are loaded on to ships at the nearby port.

    All 16 or so employees who had been in the facility had been accounted for and there were no reports of injuries, said John Blandin of the Halifax fire department.

    Teams of police officers quickly cordoned off roughly four blocks in the neighbourhood and ordered the evacuation of up to 400 people, fearing that there could be another explosion.

    The waterfront is home to several tourist attractions, cruise ship docks and a Via Rail train station.

    It wasn't clear what caused the blast, but investigators planned to explore the possibility that combustible grain dust could have caused the ignition.

    "Dust explosions are very common in grain elevators," Blandin said. "Dust is very combustible, especially with the situation with the humidity. That causes a prime likelihood for an explosion to occur."

    An official with the company that runs the silos said it was too early to comment on a possible cause, but said there was nothing amiss right before the explosion when a ship was being loaded with wood pellets from the elevator.

    Elke Juckes, vice-president of Halifax Grain Elevator Ltd., said she suspects the explosion occurred in a workhouse that adjoins two sets of silos and contains a stairwell. Sheet metal had been torn off the structure and smoke continued to billow out of it late in the afternoon.

    "Everything was running fine," said Juckes, who was in her office next to the silos when the explosion occurred. "We do try to contain our dust and the dust system was functioning when this happened."

    A crew of about 24 firefighters fanned out through the six-storey building, dousing it with water to try to control the blaze.

    The explosion, which left a pungent smell and smoke hovering over the area, tore off sheet metal from the elevator building.

    Many residents were told directly by police that they should leave the area, which is close to a university where an information booth had been set up for people displaced by the blast.

    "I was told the grain elevator could explode at any point," said Crystal Tanner, who carried her cat down a busy street after being evacuated from her condominium.

    Sue Uteck, councillor for the area, was in her home a few streets away from the silos when the walls suddenly began to vibrate.

    "It was like an internal blast came in through your house," she said as neighbours casually left their homes carrying belongings. "It shook my entire house."

    There were reports hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship were told to remain on board in port and a train scheduled to leave Halifax might be delayed.

    O'Brien said police would remain at the scene overnight, with fire inspectors expected at the scene Friday.

    "There's been no damage that we're aware of to . . . any surrounding properties," he said.

    The Canadian Press, 2003

    08/7/2003 20:40 EST

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