Windsor·Video

Essex explosion of 1980 recalled after 40 years

It woke up an entire town and it made news around North America. The explosion that rocked the Town of Essex at around 2 a.m. on February 14, 1980 destroyed several businesses and knocked out windows to dozens more.

'I was shocked. I thought the store was gone,' said Ruth Schinkel

It woke up an entire town and it made news around North America. The explosion that rocked the Town of Essex at around 2 a.m. on February 14, 1980 destroyed several businesses and knocked out windows to dozens more. 2:51

It woke up an entire town and it made news around North America. The explosion that rocked the Town of Essex at around 2 a.m. on Feb. 14, 1980 destroyed several businesses and knocked out windows to dozens more.

"I was shocked. I thought the store was gone," said Ruth Schinkel, whose family's meat market was one of the businesses destroyed.

Her husband Gerry braved the rubble of the bowling alley next door and crawled in to inspect the ruins of his business.

He brought in staff the next day, not knowing the place had been condemned.

"So the [police] sergeant came in and he says the chief wants to see you," said Schinkel, who was also town Reeve at the time.

"So he brought me in and told me I wasn't supposed to have the staff in there. I didn't realize I got picked up by the police and I didn't even know it. That's how gently it was done," said Schinkel.

The explosion happened when a car driven by Ronald Buetler struck a gas main in the rear of the Home Hardware store on Talbot Street. As a result, the store filled with gas and eventually ignited.

It woke up an entire town and it made news around North America. The explosion that rocked the Town of Essex at around 2 a.m. on February 14, 1980 destroyed several businesses and knocked out windows to dozens more. 2:19

No one was killed. But in a twist of fate, Buetler inadvertently injured his younger brother Bruce. 

He was making a sandwich in his kitchen in an upstairs apartment when the building collapsed, trapping him underneath the rubble. He eventually lost both of his hands.

Bruce ended up suing his older brother.

Rick Bonneau is a district chief with the Essex Fire and Rescue now, but was a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter who was awakened by the blast and was on scene a short time after. He recalls dousing the rubble with water to keep the firefighters cool while they worked to pull the younger Buetler from the rubble.

On Valentines Day in 1980, an explosion ripped through a block of downtown Essex after a car crashed into a building, rupturing a natural gas line. (CBC)

"There was so much devastation you didn't know where to begin," said Bonneau. "It was overwhelming. You just had to rely on some of the senior guys. You just tucked in with them and did what they were trained to do," said Bonneau, who said the fire service learned a lot from the fire.

He said he was on scene for three days, sometimes sleeping in one of the trucks.

"Nothing like that since thankfully," said Bonneau.

Fred Groves was a rookie reporter with the Essex Free Press. He wrote a book on the disaster and said there was a positive result.

"It really brought the town together over a short period of time," said Groves.

Groves donated the proceeds of his book to the fire service which was able to buy some equipment with the money.

The town also raised $40,000 and it took about a year to rebuild the stores that were lost.

About the Author

Dale Molnar

Video Journalist

Dale Molnar is an award-winning video journalist at CBC Windsor. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor and has worked in television, radio and print.

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