Some firefighters were only 100 feet away from a massive tanker explosion that shot a fireball 800 metres into the sky at Speedway International Monday evening.
WFPS Deputy Chief Bill Clark said crews were setting up to battle the blaze at the company at 40 Nicolas St. when a fuel tanker exploded. Clark said crews immediately backed off, noting they were not anticipating the explosion so quickly.
"I was about 100 feet away. It went over my head," Clark said, noting the tanker that exploded was only one-third full. "If the rail cars had exploded they can rocket up to 1,000 metres and a whole rail car weighs several tonnes."
Clark said emergency crews worked to establish a safety perimeter and police knocked on doors to evacuate nearby residences that were potentially in danger.
About 100 homes and businesses were evacuated.
Clark said crews poured foam to try and cool the tankers to prevent them from exploding. He said they are designed to resist fires, and the blaze was under control shortly after 11 p.m. Crews are still at the scene putting out any remaining hotspots.
Fire investigators from the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the WFPS are on scene trying to determine the cause of the massive blaze, which has reportedly caused $15 million in damages.
Clark said firefighters initially received the call at 5:27 pm after the building's fire alarm went off. No one was inside when the fire started, he said.
Winnipeg's emergency preparedness co-ordinator Randy Hull said the city has a response plan for any disaster, including industrial fires, though they are rare. He said there were many individuals who ignored warnings to stay away from the fire who snuck down back lanes to get a glimpse or grab a photo.
No one was injured, but Hull said these individuals could have been seriously hurt if the rail cars exploded.
"They might have been our casualties," he said.
The cause of the fire — which sparked a massive explosion that could be seen from as far as 50 kilometres away Monday — has not been determined.
There were no injuries.
Residents within an 800-metre radius of the business that sells methanol and diesel fuel were originally evacuated Monday, however, they were allowed to return home at about 1 a.m. today.
400,000 litres of explosive chemicals on site
It didn't take long before a thick, black plume of smoke billowed from the intense flames. Fire officials estimated there was upwards of 400,000 litres of explosive chemicals on site, including methanol and diesel fuel.
According to the Speedway website, pro racing methanol "is a flammable liquid, and precautions against sources of ignition must be taken. "
Chief Reid Douglas said Monday evening that fire crews could not get close enough to the fire to fight it offensively and backed off before a massive explosion occurred around 6:30 p.m. Douglas said a truck tanker containing 75,000 litres of methanol caught fire and exploded, sending flames 800 metres into the sky.
'It was so hot we had to run'
City transit buses were sent into the area as a temporary spot for those forced to leave their homes. Others decided to spend the night with friends or relatives.
Terry and Ron Cwik watched the tanker truck explode at the edge of Doucet Street. Ron Cwik said an orange fireball shot into the sky, and the heat was so intense he and others ran down the street to get away from it.
"When the fireball came it was so hot we had to run," said Sandra, another area resident.
Cassandra Brazil, 23, was sitting in a friend's car just 50 metres from the blaze when the explosion happened.
"It went from black smoke to a fireball. It shot up so high," she said. "Then a huge heat wave went right over the car. We just felt instantly hot. People were running away. Honestly, we actually thought of abandoning the car and running, too."
Brazil said the bright orange flames shooting up were overwhelming — and terrifying.
"We knew we were too close," she said. "More fire trucks started coming and the cops told us we had to leave."
Brazil was heading downtown toward home when she and a friend decided to check out the clouds of smoke billowing from St. Boniface.
"We went exploring... I never expected anything like this. We got there and we didn't see any flames. Then it just exploded... It happened so fast."
'Never seen anything like this'
Gary, who did not want to reveal his last name, said police knocked on doors at homes close to the fire, telling people to get out before the fire spread even further. "They [were] saying the whole thing is going to blow," he said.
Douglas compared the blaze to a 1987 Winnipeg fire in a nearby solvent plant, where crews dealt with more than one million litres of lacquer thinners exploding.
Police officers wearing protective masks blocked off Archibald at Provencher, and many other side streets off Marion were closed to traffic for safety reasons.
Steeve Weedon rode his bike from Fort Rouge to get a glimpse at the fire. He listened from a nearby street corner as loud "pops" from chemical containers from inside the building exploded, echoing like fireworks.
Shortly after 7 p.m., several loud booms could be heard as massive orange flames burst from inside the black smoke.
"It's huge. I've never seen anything like this before," said Stephan Cooper Monday evening, who was out with his family for a walk.
Cooper said his brother lives closer to the blaze and told him to avoid the area altogether.
Cooper said police told many people to leave the immediate area.
Glenn Schmidt stood a few blocks from the inferno and took video as loud pops sent explosions ripping through the blaze. He said curiosity made him want to get close enough to see what was going on.
-- with file from Jason Bell and Paul Williamson