EXCLUSIVE: 'Mayday! Mayday!' Firefighters speak for first time about surviving Woodman Ave. explosion
LONDON, ONT. -- Almost a year after a devastating explosion destroyed five houses on Woodman Avenue, some of the firefighters who experienced the blast want Londoners to know what happened behind the barricades.
On Aug. 14, 2019 London firefighters found themselves in a life-or-death struggle.
“It’s always some other department, some other organization, it’s never us, it’s never me. Unfortunately, that night it was,” explains Firefighter Matt Davis.
It began when Rescue #2 and Engine #2 were dispatched at 10:35 p.m. to free the driver of a car that struck the home at 450 Woodman Ave.
A pipe connected to the gas meter had been severed.
“You could smell it, and if you were close enough, which we were at the time when we were checking the vehicle, you could hear it,” recalls Firefighter Ryan Kruk. “So we knew pretty quick that this had turned into a gas call.”
The car’s driver had been freed by the time fire crews arrived, so police and firefighters began searching and evacuating homes.
Captain Randy Evans directed the fire trucks to pull back, knowing time was running out.
“We were inside that house [at 450 Woodman] maybe a minute and a half before the explosion. Had our monitors not told us we were in a dangerous environment, we would have still been in that house,” explains Evans.
Moments later, while standing outside on the sidewalk, Evans heard the loudest noise of his life.
“Then there were large stones from the house passing by us through the air,” he recalls.
Firefighter Matt Davis took cover on a nearby porch, “Large sections of roof were landing on the house I was under and on the one beside me.”
The house at 450 Woodman was gone, a debris field blocked the street and several neighbouring homes were on fire.
As he got up, Evans shouted into his radio, “Mayday! Mayday! We need more crews at this location.”
Evans’ next radio call is chilling.
“We have one firefighter down! We have one firefighter down! We are at the corner of Woodman and Queens. Woodman and Queens.”
“That’s a moment that’s tough to deal with,” admits Davis. “Thinking you are going to grab hand-lines and start fighting the fire, and then realizing some of our guys are pretty badly hurt.“
At the London Fire Department headquarters on York Street the explosion shook the building.
In a steady tone Communications Operator Deanna Foisy told Evans that help was coming from multiple fire halls, and an ambulance would meet him on Quebec Street.
“In the case of a mayday, we’re the lifeline, getting more help on scene and dealing with the active incident as well,” Foisy explains.
Evans and Kruk carried the most seriously injured firefighter to meet the ambulance outside the danger zone.
“I was able to coordinate EMS to meet us at Quebec Street, and we grabbed our injured and started limping out to Quebec Street.”
Remarkably, no one was killed that night, though several firefighters and police officers were hospitalized.
The year since Aug. 14, 2019 has permitted time for recovery and reflection.
“The ones that were injured, they’re back to work now. They’re all going to have long careers. This will be the call they remember for the rest of their career,” says Evans.
He emphasizes that the credit for saving lives on Woodman Avenue must be equally shared among many people and organizations that worked as a team that night.
“I want to thank the community, all the first responders, the police, the ambulances, the nurses, the doctors. Without them we can’t do our job.”
“We were hurting, in a bad way,” adds Davis. “To see so many crews come flying in from everywhere, pick up the ball and help us get things under control, it’s a powerful thing to see.”