Homemade bomb ‘could have been devastating’

By Allan Benner, The Tribune

Chris Ter Stege, lead investigator with the Ontario Fire Marshal, inspects 79 Park St. after a fire broke out Sunday afternoon in Welland. Tuesday October 18, 2016 in Welland, Ont. Michelle Allenberg/Welland Tribune/Postmedia Network

Chris Ter Stege, lead investigator with the Ontario Fire Marshal, inspects 79 Park St. after a fire broke out Sunday afternoon in Welland. Tuesday October 18, 2016 in Welland, Ont. Michelle Allenberg/Welland Tribune/Postmedia Network

There'd likely be a crater where 79 Park St. now stands if one of those homemade bombs detonated during Sunday's fire, said Niagara Regional Police Det. Sgt. Wayne Genders.

And there were at least four improvised explosive devices found within the upper apartment, including one that incorporated a typical backyard barbecue propane tank.

Genders said Welland firefighters he spoke to described the devastation that could have been caused if just one of the bombs had exploded.

“If that would have blown it would have leveled the house and there'd be collateral damage to the surrounding homes,” he said Wednesday, while providing details about his ongoing investigation into the startling discovery of explosives after Welland firefighters extinguished the blaze that started at about 1:38 p.m.

He said firefighters also faced a huge risk while extinguishing the fire.

“That could have been devastating. I could just imagine what could have happened there. Never mind property damage, the loss of life could have been huge.”

Genders said there were about four or five bombs found within the apartment, although “there could be more.”

The bombs were constructed out of various items, including the propane tank, aerosol cans, and ammunition from a gun.

“I don't have a total report, but that was some of the preliminary stuff,” he said, adding he's hoping the report from the NRP's bomb technicians will provide more insight into how the materials could be incorporated to construct the bombs.

“I'm not a bomb-maker so I don't understand all this either, but I'm starting to get a sense of it.”

While finding improvised explosive devices is unusual, fire Chief Brian Kennedy said most of the items used to make those devices “are common in every house.”

“There was nothing in there that we don't encounter at every fire we go to. Your average garage fire has more hazardous things in it than people really realize,” he said. “Aerosol cans, paint cans, propane tanks, they're all in our everyday fires. We have to be very careful when we approach these fires.”

He recalled one garage fire “several years ago” where an acetylene tank exploded and its folded flat wreckage crashed down on the back of a fire truck.

“That's the backyard mechanic. Those kinds of people have all kinds of hazards in their just regular shops. It's something we encounter and have to think about at every call we respond to,” he said.

In addition to threat commonly found within burning buildings, Kennedy said local firefighters have also responded to fires “where there have been intentional things done” to add significantly to the danger fire fighters face, such as propane tanks brought into a building.

“They're not normally there, and they shouldn't be there. But we've gone into fires and once the smoke clears then you see it – there's a propane tank on a table,” he said. “Why is that? Clearly there's someone trying to do something.”

A 41-year-old man who escaped the burning apartment through a second floor window during the fire remains in critical condition at a Hamilton hospital, being treated for severe smoke inhalation.

Genders said he has yet to interview the man, who has not been charged and his name has not been released.

But through his investigation, Genders hopes to determine who created the explosives and why, and if charges are warranted.

“There's still lots of work to do.”

Genders said investigations involving homemade bombs are rare in Niagara.

He said the NRP's bomb technicians only see a couple calls a year like this. The most recent was earlier this year in Niagara Falls, involving an explosive made using chemicals.

“I've been here 32 years and I've never investigated one,” he said.

At this time, he said police believe it was an isolated incident.

“There is nothing to lead us there (terrorism) at this point, so I’ll just leave it there as that. I mean we can’t say 100 per cent, but there is nothing to indicate that,” Genders said. 

Damage inside the building was not as severe as firefighters and police previously anticipated. He said there were some rooms upstairs that were destroyed, but other rooms only have water and smoke damage.

Kennedy said that's one of the reasons the improvised explosive devices did not detonate.

The propane tank, for instance, was in an area where the fire had not spread yet, and other explosive devices were found on the floor, below the heat of the flames.

Kennedy said the Ontario Fire Marhal's office has concluded its investigation into the fire, and he's awaiting its report about the fire before he's able to comment on the cause.

“I think there was some clear evidence in there of what went on, but I haven't had a chance to sit down with anyone in there to get that information yet,” he said.

With files by Michelle Allenberg