One person is in critical care, and two more are under observation following an explosion and fire that rocked downtown Prince George, B.C., Tuesday morning.
It happened around 7 a.m. PT in the former Achillion restaurant, which is under new ownership and which police say was abandoned. Houses shook as far as five kilometres away as flames and smoke shot into the air.
Lisa Bolton was in her downtown room when her window shook, causing her to be “blown back,” she said.
“There was a huge, black cloud of smoke,” she said. “We saw a lady screaming. A couple of people went to hospital.”
Video footage taken in the aftermath shows a woman being helped out of the rubble as a man calls for help.
Heather Ziebart, the owner of Daydream Donuts two doors down from the explosion, said she and a few other employees were almost “knocked off their feet” by “a large kaboom.”
“We ran out of the building to see what was happening,” she said. “We thought at first something might have hit our building.”
Ziebart said one of the people injured was a city worker, who she saw being helped away from the scene by a homeless person.
The city of Prince George confirmed one of its employees was injured in the explosion but did not provide an update on their condition.
Northern Health confirmed three people had been admitted to hospital, two by ambulance and one by private vehicle. A person with critical injuries is being transferred to a different location, the health authority said, with two others stable but being monitored.
RCMP said Tuesday afternoon the incident is being treated as suspicious, but they are still in the early stages of investigation.
Cpl. Jennifer Cooper appealed for anyone with footage of the time before, during or after the explosion to come forward so they could get a better understanding of how many people may have been impacted and possible causes.
Fire investigators have not been able to fully assess the scene as crews are still working to put out hot spots, said Deputy Fire Chief Clayton Sheen.
“Explosions are so chaotic,” he said. “There’s a lot to deal with.”
Asked about a possible cause, Chapman said it was still too early to say, but natural gas was present and “there’s only a few things that can cause an explosion like that, and natural gas is certainly one of them.”
Power to the area was cut off Tuesday morning, and FortisBC and B.C. Hydro were also at the scene.
Chapman said he has been in touch with the building owner, who told him everything was in working order as of the day before the explosion.
Both RCMP and fire rescue said they have no evidence of any fatalities or that anyone was inside the building, but they are still in the early stages of their investigation.
‘Not a safe area’: RCMP
Police have blocked off a full block in every direction around the site of the explosion, with streets between 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue from George Street to Dominion Street closed.
Police are asking the public to avoid the area, which includes the Wood Innovation and Research Centre used by the provincial government and the University of Northern British Columbia. Chapman said the exterior of that building was damaged as well, with some flames getting stuck behind the panelling.
Shattered glass from several businesses was seen scattered on the area’s sidewalks, as owners waited to be able to assess the extent of the damage.
And while Chapman could not confirm asbestos was in the air, he said it was not unlikely given the age of the building and the fact it was being completely demolished.
Cooper said crews are working to clean the area and open some streets but asked the public to be patient and give them time to work and make sure the area is no longer dangerous.
“This is not a safe area for the public to be in today,” she said.
Watch | Vertical footage of the explosion: