MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 5 - The Barry Building Explosion

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Vic McClenaghan about the Barry Building Explosion. McClenaghan was both an Identification Officer responsible for the Barry Building Explosion case and one of the many brave individuals who rushed to the scene of the explosion to help the victims. Handley and McClenaghan discuss the details of the explosion, but also how the detection of natural gas has improved since this time. Both Handley and McClenaghan ensure that while the downtown has recovered from this tragedy, North Bay will never forget this event or the individuals affected.

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day, welcome to Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. Now this time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at the Barry Building explosion – January 8, 1975 which resulted in 8 or 9 fatalities depending on how you look at it. It was the largest single loss of life in any event in North Bay’s history. The Municipal Heritage Committee’s 22nd Heritage Site Plaque was installed in 2015 at the site to commemorate the event. We have with us, Vic McClanahan who responded to the explosion as member of the police force and who later was a forensic officer in charge of the case. Now, the police station, which was in City Hall at the time, and that's occupied now by the Thompson Building almost across the road from the Barry Building. What do you remember about that day in January Vic?

Vic McClanaghan:
Well we had, as you may know Peter, we had the annex at the back of the police station and my identification office was upstairs and we also had a conference room up there. There were some fellows in there who were just finishing up on their conference. I was walking from my darkroom to my office which was facing Ferguson Street. I looked at the time and it was I think 15:25 approximately and the whole building shook. There was a huge explosion. We all went to the window and we were sure that it was the BP Service Station, so we took off and ran down the stairs across the back of the police lot and through the back door of the old police station and out the front door. There was a lot of people running, but as I was running across, I saw Ron Bailey was at the top of the pile – Sergeant at that time, pulling some people out. Deputy Chief was halfway up pulling some people out and I ran toward the left side of the building which was the Hockman Furniture Store and as I ran up to the building, I saw some rock moving at the bottom of the building and I saw a hand come out so I ran over and pulled it aside and pulled the woman out, picked her up in my arms and started moving fast out of the area and about 6 feet away from me, there was a gas pipeline and it went up with one big bang and knocked us both head over foot. I didn’t know at that time, until I got to the hospital that I had a burnt ear and a damaged knee. But, I set her down and that's the last I saw of her because I had other things to do.

Peter Handley:
The explosion was still burning wasn’t it?

Vic McClanaghan:
Oh yeah, flames and smoke coming up all over. Even after, the firemen were still trying to get ahold of it. But a lot of things happened that day. Some of them, I call miracles. I don’t know if you want me to talk about those right now?

Peter Handley:
Go ahead, sure!

Vic McClanaghan:
What happened was as soon as we got that, I went back to the Police Station right away where Deputy Chief Rice and the Inspector and I talked over at the scene and I was told that because I was the Ident Officer, I would be in charge of the investigation and that scene. Once that was taken over then I set up a perimeter and no one is allowed on that scene unless I give them permission.

Peter Handley:
How far after the blaze was this?

Vic McClanaghan:
It was almost right after I got the woman up. I ran across because Ron Bailey had come down and the flames were starting to come up and the firemen were trying to fight it so there was nothing more we could do. What happened a little later we found out was that a City Bus had come up through the Ferguson Street intersection and there was about ten or twelve people standing outside of the Barry Building waiting to catch the bus. The light turned red, they picked the people up and the bus continued on and got as far as the Empire Hotel and then the building blew up. So, if it hadn’t been for that we’d have had at least ten more casualties. So, from then on it was a matter of investigating how this whole thing had happened.

Peter Handley:
The Fire Department arrived within three minutes.

Vic McClanaghan:
Very fast.

Peter Handley:
Everybody was just on the scene and doing their jobs.

Vic McClanaghan:
It just happened that there was a lot of Police Officers logged at the time in comparison to today. That’s why some people say they saw a wall of blue running across. There were a lot of Officers on duty. The explosion also smashed a lot of the windows in the Police Station - one thing rather interesting, one of our Police Officers, was sitting at the window, got up, and walked across to help somebody and when she got back there was one big piece of sharp glass stuck right in the middle of the chair where she was sitting. So, if she had have been sitting there, she wouldn’t be around.

Peter Handley:
Alright, twenty-three injuries and eight deaths and one later in the month as she was being released from the hospital. You were also taking pictures weren’t you? Was that part of what you were doing?

Vic McClanaghan:
Oh yeah. As the Ident Officer, you’re not only responsible for the physical investigations. It’s now a little different than it was back then because then everything was on the Ident Officer but now they have detectives do a lot and idents are called to come in. But, back then it was all on the Identification Officer.

Peter Handley:
So you were called an Identification Officer?

Vic McClanaghan:
Back then, yes.

Peter Handley:
What all does that involve? They call it a forensic guy today right? Sort if a CIS type?

Vic McClanaghan:
That’s right. You everything… accidents, post mortems, suicides… everything. As an example I did break-ins, so one day at the Kennedy Office all forty-five officers were broken into so each of those offices have been checked for fingerprints and while I was there I got a call that there were thirty-five more at another building and it was one guy, no help. It was very hectic. So, at the Barry Building, my job was to assess what help I would need and secondly to find out how it happened and find if there were any bodies and identify them. So, at that time, I allowed somebody from the gas companies to come in with me as an Investigator and also somebody from the Coroner’s office. Then, I got three men from my department to help and we had some people from City Hall and the Ambulance service. This was a first for them, I'd been around a few things before but they wanted to know how we would identify and I told them how we would identify, but one thing we understood was that there were no equipment allowed in there and no shovels or anything were to be used – it all had to be done by hand.

Peter Handley:
Really?

Vic McClanaghan:
Some of the pieces were so minute that you just couldn’t afford to lose them.

Peter Handley:
And you took notes on all that stuff and you still have them right?

Vic McClanaghan:
Yes, and what I did was I didn’t take my regular note book, I took my old fashioned school scribbler and every time something was done I’d write down time, date and who was there and take pictures. That was how we knew exactly and proved beyond any doubt how this happened. Then we went searching for the bodies.

Peter Handley:
Is there anything in there that you read today that still bothers you?

Vic McClanaghan:
I think a lot is still bothering me, not only from that but also the other things that have happened, which is wrong. See, today there is help. Back then, you had to be the tough guy because you had people who were in your face and who were crying or had lost lives and you couldn’t’ let your emotions show there. So, you kept them in and barried them for so many years and so today some of that stuff is coming back on me today, so I have to hold myself again.

Peter Handley:
Would you do it over again?

Vic McClanaghan:
By all means. I always wanted to be a Police Officer, all my life. I made an application to the OPP and I was too young. I made an application to the RCMP and I was too young. Finally, I was working down at the Red Line Inn and I used to take this old fellow home every night stoned to the eyeballs and he told me that the City Police were taking applications and to make an application. I said ‘no, they’ll probably only hire somebody local’ and he said ‘no, make the application.’ So, I made the application Saturday night and Monday morning the Chief came down and saw me and talked to me and asked me to come write the exam. He said, ‘here’s a paper, fill it out, sit there’ and about ten minutes later he came out and said you’ll start April 1st so that’s how I got on.

Peter Handley:
Boy oh boy. Roughly what year was that?

Vic McClanaghan:
1956. Just before I started.

Peter Handley:
Now, this description, you had to write a report for everything you did.

Vic McClanaghan:
Yes, very much so and not only that but because this report was so big, the Coroner of Ontario came up twice a week and sat in on meetings and so did the lawyer from the gas company. They were so affected by this that the representative of the lawyer said he'd never had cooperation like this before. They had never been allowed on the scene before. In fact, both of them came to me sometime later and wanted me to quit the force and work with them.

Peter Handley:
So, your report was made to be presented to the coroner's jury – is that a correct assumption?

Vic McClanaghan:
Well, first of all, a report is made to keep in our files and then from there, yes the Coroner would be informed on it and he would take it to others take and we would be asked about some things as the Coroner’s inquest went on.

Peter Handley:
So you attended the Coroner’s Inquest?

Vic McClanaghan:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
What do you remember about that?

Vic McClanaghan:
I don't remember too much. So much has happened in this whole episode. Like this woman who I carried out, I didn’t even know her until I met her at the unveiling and I’ve given evidence in Court so many times. You go up, you give the evidence to what you know and what has happened.

Peter Handley:
Does that jury stand out in your mind or is it just another in a lost series…

Vic McClanaghan:
No, not really. It’s just part of the investigation and the follow up and then it is up to them to decide given the evidence that they have if there are any recommendations.

Peter Handley:
Now, the coroner's jury community, clarify this. I know we were doing research for this plaque, the Fire Department were very helpful and they gave us a big scrapbook and in that scrapbook was a letter to the editor and apparently Bruce Ruggles who you used to work and was on the radio for many years - very talented. He wrote a letter to the editor saying the jury never blamed anybody and they were not doing their job. Then, Dr. Gross, the Coroner, sent a letter back answering and explaining what a coroner's jury was supposed to do – it’s not to lay blame it’s to provide reasons for things happening, right?

Vic McClanaghan:
That’s right.

Peter Handley:
Now there are some Coroner’s Inquests which do not always hit on what you want them to say, it depends on the leadership. A good coroner will direct and run this thing properly so the evidence can come out to the people who are sitting on the jury. From then, they will make recommendations to the Coroner. Another thing that I got from the actually from the letter. It laid out exactly what happened in their view. There was a service line to a dresser coupling which the gas company’s plow broke and separated by 3/16th of an inch and gas seeped into the building through a crack in the fieldstone basement wall and then went upstairs. People smelled it Vic!

Vic McClanaghan:
That information was actually from my report – they didn’t know that.

Peter Handley:
Oh.

Vic McClanaghan:
I was one that found out how this happened. What happened was, there was a vacant lot next door, there was a gas line in that lot which they thought there was no gas in. The gas company’s backhoe came in and started digging. It got to noon hour and they made one dig into the ground and they went for lunch, but what happened at that time and in northern Ontario, all gas lines didn’t have the type of connections that they have today – they had dresser couplings which is a rubber connection between two pipes holding them together. The reason for that is so when frost comes, there would be a give in them. Well, what happened, unknown to them, he had pulled that apart. Part number two, gas lines in the ground cause a certain amount of vibration so it leaves a space underneath all the pipes, so the gas leak started to follow that and came to the first place that it could get out through and that was where the metres were at the back of the building. It went up there and as it went up they started to smell it and they kept opening windows. At the same time of the buildup, there was a backup. The backup was not only did the gas go up there, it also went up to the right of the building and started up the driveway that went out on to McIntyre Street, but that building was blasted and was put into solid rock so that as the driveway went up it stopped at a point and, at that point, that's where the gas had stopped, but because the building was made of stone and cement there were cracks, so the gas started to go up there and entered into the building and that’s when it blew. When it blew it lifted the whole building. I heard the time and I never really confirmed this but apparently there was an apartment in the bottom of the building and the man in there ran from the front and was able to escape out the back before the building came down. I never confirmed that but that’s what happened.

Peter Handley:
One of the results, I understand, from the corners or recommendations was that the gas crew couldn't even turn the gas off. They didn't have the proper tools to turn the handle or nozzle or whatever it is to turn the gas source off and it was 90 minutes before they managed to get that equipment finally stop the gas.

Vic McClanaghan:
If I try and think back I remember that there was a considerable amount of time before they could turn the gas off. That was why the gas went up beside me. It would be feeding in under all that pile of rubble and there was gas lines in there still putting flame up around the pile, that’s why they had to get off it – it was too dangerous

Peter Handley:
Do you remember the recommendations came out of all this?

Vic McClanaghan:
No, I don’t.

Peter Handley:
It’s a wonder I think it must have triggered something about warnings. I mean, people smelled the gas as you mentioned earlier and they just went about their business.

Vic McClanaghan:
Yeah, that’s very surprising. Nowadays, the minute gas is smelt they go outside and call the company. They’re more attuned to what’s going on with gas now I suppose.

Peter Handley:
Partly, I suppose as a result of this because it made them change their rules and regulations.

Vic McClanaghan:
This was so big that I had people from the FBI and the RCMP and officers from all over come in and talk about this. There was nothing this big in Canada or even the states like this at the time.

Peter Handley:
Do you think that because of the changing of the regulations that other lives would have been saved because they changed their procedures?

Vic McClanaghan:
Oh, if it was today that gas was in there, there would be no doubt in my mind that the building would be evacuated right away.

Peter Handley:
I would assume also that before the started working on that lot, there would've been equipment to tell them that there was still gas in the line, so you have to shut the gas off and bleed it out before you do any work on the excavation.

Vic McClanaghan:
Yes. I was talking to a fellow that used to work there and he said that on the new connections, there’s a hole drilled in the side with a cap on it and they can drain it and cut it off before it goes into anyplace.

Peter Handley:
So, I guess there is progress. Gas is still volatile.

Vic McClanaghan:
Absolutely, nothing scares me as much as the smell of gas.

Peter Handley:
Personally, I know we had coal in our furnace and gas came along and my dad worked in the mining camps and he wouldn’t touch gas until, well, until he was our age! Gas is just so volatile! You were kind enough to come to the unveiling of this Heritage Site Plaque. Did you talk to any of the people cause I saw you mingling.

Vic McClanaghan:
Well I was standing there and I looked across and I see this woman and I looked at her and said ‘I’m sure that’s the woman that I pulled out.’ So I walked over to her and I said, ‘oh, you’re here to learn about this?’ and she said ‘oh, I was involved in it’ and I said ‘well, I think I’m the person that pulled you out’ and she went all to pieces and said ‘I’ve gone 43 years trying to find out who pulled me out of there.’ Of course, I didn't know her name or anything because I had put her down and moved onto other stuff. But, she called her family and they were all bawling and so on. But yeah, she was extremely lucky because she was completely covered and then all of a sudden a hand came out. How she survived with the weight of the rocks, its amazing that she didn’t come out more injured.

Peter Handley:
A lot of family members came out to that and I’ve got to thank Peter Carello and our staff at City Hall for reaching out to the family members and the survivors by email. We got quite a response over a period of a year with Peter touching base with these people. Some of them said ‘you know, it’s about time’ when we suggested that this was going to be done. I think they thought that North Bay had forgotten how dramatic this whole thing was because it was. It could have been so much worse though. I mean you mentioned the bus, but I mean if it'd gotten out of control –

Vic McClanaghan:
Well it was breaking glasses on the next street over. Some funny things, interesting things or interesting things that happened: there was a chair that sat in the lobby of the Barry Building and it was found on the top floor of the Cochrane Dunlop Building as if it had just been placed there. There was only about an inch and a half between the window on either side – how it got in there I don’t know. There was a big carpet on the floor of the Barry Building and it was found completely laid out on the top of the parking garage. There was a woman who was sitting in her chair and just as she was shot up the roof opened up and she was knocked right out of the building and landed outside on some cars, got up, dusted herself off and continued on. I think the most amazing thing that happened was the bus picking up those people from outside though.

Peter Handley:
Yeah.

Vic McClanaghan:
There was this one lady who was leaving the building and of course she was killed, she was crushed right outside of the building.

Peter Handley:
You had to mark it all down too.

Vic McClanaghan:
Yeah. The unfortunate part is – and you were just talking about people forgetting, but I have a bunch of this stuff and I left a lot at the police station, but there is such limited space there that we’re worried that it might disappear. So, you suggested it might be a good idea to talk to the lady at the Museum to see if she would be interested in taking some of that stuff over. Nobody is really interested in that stuff. It’s passed.

Peter Handley:
How do you feel about that?

Vic McClanaghan:
I get upset because I’ve always said if you don’t know where you came from, you’re going to have a hard time knowing where you’re going. It’s the values from the past that make you what you are today. But it seems like people are just living for today. There should be something more about that in our schools. We should be introducing more about our past especially in our own towns and cities.

Peter Handley:
You know, I just learned something not too long ago about Trout Mills, which I didn't know anything about this. I learned that there's a lot of stuff on the Internet, which is a saving grace in a lot of respects. But, you took all the stuff you got to Toronto and report to a convention?

Vic McClanaghan:
So, what happened, was, after a period of time we were invited down and a couple hundred doctors were going to be made coroners. So we were asked to go speak on the Barry Building and what happened. So, we were to speak on what this was about and give them an expectation of what is asked of coroners and I emphasized the importance of talking to one's police station.

Peter Handley:
What was your relationship with Dr. Gross?

Vic McClanaghan:
Oh he was very good. I think he was fantastic, a great coroner and very enthusiastic.

Peter Handley:
With this letter to the editor thing, he explained the entire thing and we’ve actually got a shot of it on the plaque if you’re interested in reading it or what it has to say. Some of the recommendations actually came out of it. Okay, North Bay does not forget – does that sort of some this whole plaque business up?

Vic McClanaghan:
Oh I think the plaque is fantastic. I’ve been hoping for years that something would be done. But the plaques yes are going to give it a reminder of what it was all about and what these places are for. Some of the younger people today are changing and have started to accept the past and look back on it with this type of teaching and education but for a while nobody was interested in it. Whatever teaching is happening, I think it's starting to sink in the importance of past.

Peter Handley:
Vic has written a book called ‘The Beat Light’ about North Bay’s Police Force and when we talk about law enforcement and the jail I want to get you back and talk about that aspect of our life. Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. Vic, thank you for coming in and filling us in on a lot of details. We’d be lost without you. These productions are put together, by the Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but also hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time as we flip another page in the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofNorthbay.ca. Pete Handley speaking.