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A series of explosions ripped through Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases early Sunday, lighting up the sky in northwest Toronto between Highway 401 and Downsview Park. ((Submitted by Andrew Erlich))

A veteran firefighter died trying to extinguish a massive fire at a propane depot in north Toronto early Sunday, a blaze that closed major highways and forced thousands to flee their homes.

'Next thing you know, I've got glass in my head and I'm running down the road.' —Neighbour Shelby Degan

The firefighter, who had been with the force for about 25 years, was found lifeless by a fellow firefighter in the hours after a 3:50 a.m. explosion erupted at Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases, Toronto fire service Div. Chief David Sheen said.  

He was later identified as Bob Leek, a district chief of emergency planning. Paramedics and firefighters tried to revive him to no avail, and he was rushed to hospital, Sheen said, adding he knew the firefighter personally. 

"It's hard, it's hard," Sheen said, his voice cracking with emotion. "Our guys are having a rough time with this."

Several other people, many of them area residents, suffered minor injuries when a series of explosions ripped through the storage facility at 54 Murray Rd., north of Highway 401, Toronto Fire division commander Bob O'Hallarn said.

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Firefighters gather several blocks from the site of Sunday's propane depot fire. ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

At an evening news briefing, acting police chief Kim Derry said one person who was at the site at the time of the explosion remains unaccounted for.

He said the person, who has not been identified and was described as being of East Indian origin, is believed to be an employee of Sunrise Propane.

Residents said the explosion was terrifying.

"My whole house shook. The front door came off and I saw fire," said Shelby Degan, who lives less than a block away from the depot.

"Next thing you know, I've got glass in my head and I'm running down the road."

O'Hallarn said the explosion sent large pieces of metal — likely from tanks that exploded — flying into nearby streets. Homes were damaged, windows shattered and doors were ripped from their hinges. About 200 firefighters battled intense heat to fight spot fires that continued to burn into Sunday evening.

The cause of the fire was still unknown. The area was still too unstable for Ontario Fire Marshal's Office investigators to enter the site and begin their probe.

Mayor David Miller, on vacation in Vancouver, was rushing back to Toronto to help co-ordinate the relief efforts. In a telephone news conference Sunday afternoon, he said his top priority is to ensure the area is made safe.

Neighbourhood evacuated

Toronto police ordered the evacuation of neighbourhoods within 1.6 kilometres of Sunrise Propane. Thousands of people living between Keele Street, Dufferin Street, Sheppard Avenue and Wilson Avenue were ordered to leave their homes.

While the evacuation was technically voluntary, Derry said virtually everyone left, with only one or two people deciding to stay.

Residents were given the all-clear to return to their homes shortly before 8 p.m., but Derry said the process would take several hours as officers allow people through the cordoned off areas and escort them to their properties.

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Map of the evacuation area, near Keele St. and Wilson Ave., northwest Toronto. ((CBC))

Derry confirmed that there was some looting of stores whose windows had been blown out by the explosions. He said both uniformed and plain clothes officers were brought in to patrol the area overnight and keep it secure until Monday morning.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre appeared to be evacuated Sunday afternoon, although the city said no official evacuation order had been issued.

Census figures for the area suggest that more than 12,000 people live in the affected zone. Many of the evacuees were being housed at York University, where they were offered beds set up in the school gymnasium. The Red Cross and Salvation Army  were supplying food, water and goods to evacuees, while the Humane Society was providing food and water to pets.

People worried about family or friends who live in the affected neighbourhood can call 416-736-5185 for information.

"I think we're very lucky," O'Hallarn said before the firefighter's death was announced, referring to the limited number injuries to residents in the densely populated area. "There was a very, very large amount of fire when we arrived … It could have been much more serious."

O'Hallarn said a truck driver who was believed to be on the Sunrise Propane site at the time of the explosion managed to take himself to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for minor injuries.

Canada's busiest highway closed until Sunday evening

Police co-ordinated the evacuation and closed Highway 401, Canada's busiest roadway, for a 16-kilometre stretch between the Don Valley Parkway and Highway 400. Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police said traffic in the area was snarled and several accidents had occurred.

The highway had almost fully reopened by 8 p.m., but police said a few exits would remain closed as the investigation continued into the explosions.

Police were uncertain whether a GO Train line that passes near Sunrise Propane would reopen in time for Monday morning's commute. They said crews will need to inspect the track, which carries commuters between Barrie and Toronto, running through Bradford, Newmarket and Aurora.

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Shelby Degan holds her sweater to her mouth in an attempt to filter the smoke near her home not far from the site of a huge blaze at a propane storage facility in northwest Toronto. ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

A no-fly zone was ordered over the area, as emergency workers feared that propane tankers parked on the site might spark further explosions, although those fears were diminishing by noon.

Natural gas and hydro were shut off to the area as a precaution.

The first explosion, which could be heard seven kilometres away, shook nearby homes and buildings, waking residents.

Robert Halman, who lives on Murray Road, said his ceiling crashed on top of him, and the doors and windows of his home blew out. Flames were everywhere, with fireballs exploding into the sky.

He escaped, but his shirt caught fire, burning his back. His forehead was covered in blood from the debris that hit him.

"I'm lucky that I got out of there alive," he said, scratches visible on his forehead.

Reports also emerged that callers trying to reach 911 at the height of the explosion were getting a busy signal, but Miller would not comment on those reports.

He also said it was too soon to investigate whether the propane facility should have been located in a residential neighbourhood, a concern many area residents have voiced. The facility was allowed under zoning laws, and regularly inspected by the province. 

Shelley Carroll, Toronto's acting deputy mayor, suggested Sunday that the propane depot was in place before many of the area homes were built.

Pearson traffic moving normally

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This photo was taken from Canyon Avenue at 3:52 a.m. ET. ((Submitted by Yuriy Nazarenko)

Regular commercial air traffic was moving in and out of Pearson International Airport on Sunday, but smaller, privately owned aircraft were restricted from flying over the affected area, said Trish Krale, spokeswoman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

O'Hallarn said air quality was good and there was no fear of harmful toxins in the area.

He said there were initial fears that two burning truck tankers on the Sunrise site could spark more explosions. But as of Sunday afternoon, one of the fires was under control. Another small tanker continued to burn — its tires in flames — but O'Hallarn said it was not filled with propane, so the risk of explosion is minimal.

While emergency crews worked, the Downsview, Yorkdale and Wilson subway stations were temporarily closed, although they have since reopened. 

Toronto Transit Commission spokesman Brad Ross said many bus routes were altered to detour around the evacuation zone. He said about 500,000 to 750,000 people ride the TTC on a typical Sunday.

Go buses were also being re-routed around the affected area.

With files from the Canadian Press