Woodstock apartment blast leaves 2 still missing

Police have located five of the seven people who were unaccounted for after an explosion tore through an apartment building in Woodstock, Ont., but two remain missing.

Residents across the street to be allowed home Monday night

Firefighters and investigators examine the scene of a three-storey apartment building fire in Woodstock, Ont., Monday. (Dave Chidley/Associated Press)

Police have located five of the seven people who were unaccounted for after an explosion tore through an apartment building in Woodstock, Ont., but two remain missing.

Police were able to track down the five after going through a tenant list and setting up a hotline through the Red Cross, Woodstock fire Chief Rod Freeman said on Monday.

Search crews have ended their work for the day without discovering any bodies in the rubble, the CBC's Dan Sherman reported Monday night.

Seven people were also injured in the blast at the three-storey building at Victoria Street South and Henry Street , which exploded about 8:35 a.m. ET on Sunday, destroying the middle portion of the structure.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Woodstock Mayor Pat Sobeski declared the local state of emergency he had imposed was over.

He also praised the efforts of emergency crews and said a special thanks to ordinary people "who yesterday just wandered into the Red Cross centre at the community complex and simply asked how they could help. This is a Canadian quality that is so appreciated during a crisis like this."

Const. Steve McEwen said residents on the east side of the street who were forced to flee their homes will be allowed back after 8 p.m. Monday.

Victim assistance services of Oxford County have set up a resource room at the county administrative building and are continuing to assist those affected by the explosion. (To reach them call 519-421-4703.)

At a separate news conference earlier, Freeman told reporters there will likely be fatalities, though he declined to release details about the two people who have not been found.

"Given that 24 hours have passed … we should be prepared for what could be a difficult day. But beyond that I could not speculate," he said.

100 lived in housing complex

Investigators originally thought up to 11 people were missing, but lowered that number to seven later Sunday afternoon.

Residents watch investigators comb the scene of the destroyed apartment building. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"If you look at the devastation of the building, there's a frame left in some parts, but the rest has collapsed in on itself," said CBC reporter Steven D'Souza in Woodstock on Monday. "They're going under the assumption that those two individuals are most likely in the centre of the building where the building has completely collapsed."

The housing complex contained 45 units with about 100 residents, Freeman said. Most of them are now staying with family and friends or being housed at the local Quality Inn.

There is no further danger to the surrounding community as fire officials continue their investigation into the possible causes of the explosion, he said.

"I can't stress enough that right now we have an explosion and a fire, and we have no evidence to indicate anything criminal in nature."

Engineers were going through the building Monday to determine whether it was safe to enter, Freeman said.

"I don't expect anybody will be allowed in the building for quite some time…. If you look at that devastation, it is not inhabitable right now."

D'Souza said there was a crew of at least 40 people there working around the scene, including firefighters, Ontario Provincial Police, various utilities, as well as a canine unit with sniffer dogs.

30 firefighters tackled blaze

About 30 firefighters tackled the blaze, and the Office of the Fire Marshal and provincial police were also on the scene Sunday.

CBC reporter Gary Ennett described the destruction as "unbelievable," with a third of the building "just gone."

"It's just rubble," he said. "There's no roof. It was blown right off, apparently, and all we have is piles of smouldering rubble."

Heidi Dantes, emergency room director at Woodstock General Hospital, said staff treated seven adults, most for minor injuries. Six of the seven were released and the remaining person's injuries are not critical, Dantes said.

One firefighter was treated for a broken leg.

Blast woke residents

Gas has since been shut off to all residents of Victoria Street, according to the Woodstock Sentinel-Review., which said some residents in the building used gas appliances.

Jen Carr said she was awakened Sunday morning by a loud noise, and her house was shaking, so she went to the window.

"I saw ambulances everywhere, people running around," she said. "It was pretty crazy."

Maciej Podlesny, who lives about a kilometre from the building, was also awakened by the blast.

"It felt like a car hitting the house. The level of the flames which reached [an estimated] height of at least five or six storeys."

Building 'just engulfed'

Julius Wolf, who lives across the street from the damaged building, said he heard a "terrible explosion" and thought a car had driven into the house or a bomb had gone off.

"The apartment building across the street was just engulfed," he said.

Wolf said he saw a firefighter approach the collapsed part of the building to help a woman when a wall toppled over on him. The firefighter stayed and with the help of another firefighter got the woman out of there, Wolf said.

Debris was blown across the street, he said. The Salvation Army also set up a canteen at a nearby Via Rail station for emergency workers, while the Red Cross set up at the Goff Hall community centre.

Len Murphy, president of the local branch of the Red Cross, said the agency would provide food, shelter and clothing for at least 72 hours.

Anyone concerned about loved ones should call the Red Cross at 1-866-280-1735.

With files from The Canadian Press