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'A day you don't want to live': Family, friends and firefighters remember the Hub Oil explosion

Last Updated Aug 12, 2019 at 1:20 pm MDT

Fire burns at the Hub Oil plant in Calgary on Monday Aug. 9, 1999. The plant was rocked by a string of explosions that sent at least five people to hospital and pumped a dense cloud of toxic black smoke into the sky. (CP PHOTO/Calgary Herald-Larry MacDougal) The Canadian Press Images/Calgary Herald
Summary

On Aug. 9, 1999, two workers were killed when a massive fire consumed Hub Oil.


One of the victims left behind a wife and three children.


Hub Oil eventually pleaded guilty to the explosion and was ordered to pay $200,000 in fines.


CALGARY (660 NEWS) – What started as a bright, sunny morning in southeast Calgary soon turned dark on Aug. 9, 1999.

On that morning, an explosion hit the Hub Oil facility on 17 Ave and 60 Street SE, claiming the lives of two workers.

Smoke rises from the Hub Oil plant in southeast Calgary on Monday Aug. 9, 1999. The plant was rocked by a string of explosions that sent at least five people to hospital and pumped a dense cloud of toxic black smoke into the sky. (CP PHOTO/Calgary Herald-Liam Shaw) The Canadian Press Images/Calgary Herald

One of those workers was Ryan Eckhard, 26, who left behind his wife and three daughters under the age of two.

“Every year is the same,” Ryan’s widow Bobbi-Jo told 660 NEWS. “It’s a day you don’t want to live.”

Bobbi-Jo Eckhard poses with her three children, Chelsey, Kay-Lee, and Kassidy, all three years old in Calgary in this July 31, 2001 file photo. Bobbi-Jo lost her husband, Ryan, in the Aug. 9, 1999 Hub Oil explosion. (CP PHOTO/Calgary Herald – Mikael Kjellstrom) The Canadian Press Images/Calgary Herald

 

Bobbi-Jo said she was putting her kids down for a nap when one of Ryan’s friends called her that morning.

“He said, ‘Did you hear? Hub Oil exploded.’ I ran outside and you could see the black smoke. I fell apart. I went into a state of shock. I knew that if I hadn’t heard from Ryan by the time news actually broke, he was already gone. It’s a day that still chokes me up obviously.”

Eckhard’s co-worker also died in the explosion which resulted in a fire that took nine hours to contain.

District Fire Chief Mike Van Tetering was one of several firefighters who responded to the explosion. He recounts what it was like as he drove to the scene.

“We went, ‘Wow, this is a big incident.’ We had it in the back of our mind that it possibly could be Hub Oil. Something of that magnitude and size, you kind of know that Hub Oil is in that vicinity.”

Emergency workers dealt with numerous challenges as the blaze was so large and the smoke so thick, it was hard to get close to douse the flames. That was on top of other challenges posed for nearby residents.

“With all those tank explosions, there was shrapnel coming down,” said Van Tetering. “The large plume of smoke into the neighbourhood was dropping all kinds of debris and pieces of metal into the neighbourhood. It was taxing in the fact that we wanted to get in there, we want to do something, we want to try to mitigate things but every time we tried to do so there was something that would happen that would cause this pause.”

Deputy Chief Garth Rabel, now with the Airdrie Fire Department, was working with the CFD that day and said firefighters gave it all they had.

“I remember always fondly how hard the firefighters worked. We did lose an aerial truck, there was other equipment that was damaged. The Calgary Police Service assisted with roadways being shut down. There was a large influx of media and city attention. It was quite an incident.”

The explosions also damaged the Corral Four-Screen Drive-In theatre, which never reopened.

Although 20 years have passed, Bobbi-Jo said her family has moved on thanks to the support of family and neighbours.

“I still live in the same house he bought me. My neighbours haven’t changed and they still come over and give me good wishes and tell me that they’re here. Ryan’s Dad lived in Ontario, he’s there no longer. He moved back to Calgary to be here for his three grandchildren. Ryan’s mom–she was a life support. He impacted a lot of people in such a short life span. There’s no forgetting him.”

The explosion and fire were caused by pressure that built up in an old storage tank which the company, Hub Oil, claimed they sold for scrap 28 years earlier.

Hub Oil eventually pleaded guilty to the explosion and was ordered to pay $200,000 in fines. They also paid $100,000 to SAIT’s Workplace Safety Program and $100,000 in a trust fund to the children of the two men.