Firefighters called to Eastway Tank 6 times in 18 years

Ottawa firefighters responded to calls for service to Eastway Tank — the site of a fatal explosion and fire earlier this month — six times in the last 18 years, but city officials continue to withhold information about the nature of those emergencies.

City withholding details of previous incidents at site of fatal explosion

A growing tribute of flowers, cards and other items left in memory of the victims of the deadly explosion and fire at Eastway Tank is seen outside the Merivale Road manufacturing plant on Jan. 20, 2022, one week after the blast. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Ottawa firefighters responded to calls for service to Eastway Tank six times in the last 18 years, but city officials continue to withhold information about the nature of those emergencies.

An explosion and fire at the tanker truck plant on Jan. 13 killed six employees and critically injured a seventh.

Several agencies including Ottawa police, the coroner's office and the Ministry of Labour are investigating the disaster. On Friday, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) announced its investigators had completed their work at the site.

CBC News requested a record of previous fire calls to 1995 Merivale Rd. from Ottawa Fire Services. The City of Ottawa, which is handling communications on the matter, twice refused to release the information, citing the current investigation.

In an internal email sent Friday and forwarded to CBC News, Kim Ayotte, the city's general manager of emergency and protective services, confirmed firefighters had responded to calls to that address six times in the last 18 years. Ayotte didn't make it clear whether those six calls included the disaster on Jan. 13.

In an internal email, Kim Ayotte, Ottawa's general manager of emergency and protective services, confirmed firefighters were called to 1995 Merivale Rd. six times in the last 18 years. (Stu Mills/CBC)

However, Ayotte said Ottawa Fire Services could not release the detailed fire incident reports on those calls due to the ongoing investigations.

Nor is the department in a position to release information pertaining to any health and safety violations at Eastway, Ayotte said, as those fall under the purview of the Ministry of Labour.

Witnesses allege unsafe practices

Former employees of Eastway Tank have told CBC News they witnessed or had knowledge of three separate fires at the facility in recent years. The former employees said firefighters responded on at least two of those occasions.

The employees alleged witnessing several unsafe practices at Eastway, including welding near highly flammable liquids and pails of oil-soaked rags.

This photo submitted by former Eastway Tank electrician Chris Collins shows the aftermath of a fire involving a street sweeper in March 2021. Collins told CBC the photo was taken by Danny Beale, who died in the explosion at the Merivale Road facility on Jan. 13, 2022. (Submitted by Chris Collins)

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Eastway owner and president Neil Greene called the allegations "unfounded."

"Eastway Tank has always worked to maintain the highest safety standards. We are working closely with investigators and are cooperating fully to get to the bottom of what happened," Greene said.

Greene also offered his sympathies to the families of the six workers who died: Rick Bastien, Danny Beale, Kayla Ferguson, Matt Kearney, Etienne Mabiala and Russell McLellan.

A seventh Eastway employee was critically injured and remains in hospital. 

Eastway Tank, which housed a large production area, four service bays, a paint shop, a welding room, offices and staff facilities, was constructed in 1968.

This diagram of the Eastway facility shows the explosion appears to have taken place in the production area on the left, while the service area on the right remains standing. (CBC)

Fire marshal examined vehicles

On Friday, the fire marshal's office tweeted that its officers had cleared the scene but the "investigation into the origin, cause and circumstance around this incident continues."

In a later statement to CBC, the OFM said "there is still much work to be done," and confirmed OFM investigators had interviewed a number of witnesses "important to the investigation."

Chris Lawson of the Office of the Fire Marshal speaks to reporters on Jan. 14, 2022, one day after the fatal explosion and fire. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Investigators also examined vehicles, the OFM confirmed. 

"The equipment on-site, including vehicles, was examined as part of our investigation. We have gathered the evidence required and the equipment remains on site," they said.

CBC News has seen images appearing to show the wreckage of two tanker trucks in the production area of the facility.

The initial explosion, and possibly subsequent blasts, clearly occurred in that part of the building.

"The nature of any fire scene is unique and fire investigators take their time to thoroughly go through all evidence and data before finalizing any report. As this investigation has only just begun, it would be premature to speculate on any findings or timeframe of completion," the OFM said Friday.

Clockwise from top left: Matt Kearney, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Rick Bastien, Russell McLellan and Kayla Ferguson were the six victims killed by the explosion and fire. (Submitted photos)

Ottawa police have interviewed at least one former Eastway employee, Josh Bastien, whose father Rick Bastien died in the explosion.

Families and friends of the victims held a private vigil outside the facility on Friday night. The ongoing investigations prevent the public from getting any closer to the blast site.

If you want to get in touch with a reporter about this story, please contact CBC Ottawa.

With files from Guy Quenneville