WHEATLEY, Ontario — Electricity is cut off. Guards sit in cars on every corner. Hundreds of people are out of their homes, some without access to their clothing or belongings.
And officials are frantically working to unravel the grim mystery of what exactly caused a gas explosion last August in Wheatley, Ontario — and how to prevent another explosion from happening.
More than four months after the blast shuttered Wheatley’s downtown and injured 20 of the town’s 2,900 residents, the authorities still don’t know where the gas leak came from, or why it happened.
Residents and local officials are examining the risks associated with the town’s history as a site of 19th-century gas wells, vestiges of the area’s oil and gas industry. Many are now grappling with whether the center of the town, which was formally recognized in 1865, should be permanently abandoned.
“It still is one of those like really surreal things where you tell people like, yeah, the town blew up,” said Stephanie Charbonneau, a schoolteacher who was forced to flee her house with her family. “Who knows what’s going to happen at the end of all of this? What is Wheatley going to look like?”
In the 1890s, gas wells were dug to supply heat and power to homes and businesses in and around Wheatley, which is in southwestern Ontario on Lake Erie. Over time, the wells became obsolete and buildings were constructed directly on top of them; the wells’ locations were loosely, if at all, documented.
Before the blast, Wheatley was mostly known for its Lake Erie fishery; a shipyard; and a lakeside provincial park. Few people in the community knew about the gas wells, or that an explosion had leveled a meeting hall in 1936. Stories of gas leaks from the town’s oldest residents and newspaper accounts of older explosions begin circulating only after the August explosion.
The first sign of trouble was on June 2, when Whit Thiele, a local business owner, went to investigate a foul odor in the basement of a downtown commercial building he owned. There, he saw water pouring through cracks in the foundation and through a drain in the floor before pooling into a fizzing mass.
Mr. Thiele felt ill, became woozy and had to be revived by firefighters who evacuated the area around the office.
Sensors were then installed and quickly began detecting hazardous gases, leading firefighters to evacuate the area around the building twice more during the summer.
Nearly three months later, on Aug. 26, Steve Ingram, the president of the local shipyard, and his wife, Barb Carson, were getting ready for dinner at home when firefighters again began taping off an evacuation zone because of a gas leak.
“Well, here we go again,” Mr. Ingram recalled saying to his wife that evening. “Sooner or later this place is going to blow up.”
Suddenly, the sound of the explosion filled the air. The windows of the Ingrams’ home bent in and then popped outward, miraculously without breaking, as the shock wave toppled their belongings throughout the house. While insulation and other building materials began drifting down from the sky, the couple grabbed their phones and iPads, and fled wearing only T-shirts and…