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'It's really sad': Neighbour describes chaotic scene after Calgary house explosion

Firefighters attend the scene of a house explosion that injured several people, destroyed one home and damaged others in Calgary on Monday, March 27, 2023. A leader in Calgary's South Sudanese community says efforts will be made to provide financial help to 10 people seriously injured in a house explosion. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — Rima Rifai thought her furnace had exploded Monday when the house across the street burst into a ball of fire, sending 10 people to hospital with serious injuries.

When she opened the front door to the street, Rifai saw the home her neighbour has lived in for 20 years was destroyed.

"The whole top of the house was completely blown off and there were all of these people coming out of the house," Rifai said in an interview Tuesday outside her home in the neighbourhood east of downtown.

"There was a gentleman actually right between these two vehicles here. You could tell after the explosion he had made it out first and he was just wandering the streets in absolute shock."

The explosion also damaged several other homes and sent part of the roof of the house that blew up into a yard across the street.

Calgary Emergency Medical Services has said all the victims were adults. Six had life-threatening injuries and four were seriously hurt. 

Rifai and her neighbours rushed to help other victims exit the home.

"We brought him over to safety, sat him down in a chair, wrapped him in blankets and it actually got more hectic after that," she said.

"It started with smoke and then flames and it just exploded into a huge fire. As we were trying to get them out one by one. Even one of the neighbours got set on fire actually trying to get them out. It was just surreal."

Rifai said the injuries were severe.

"We were trying to get blankets on them and just comfort them and give them some support. The skin was peeling off of every part of the body that we could actually wrap up," she said.

"I feel thankful that there were no lives taken and at the same time, I am sad for them. It's sad. It's really sad."

A pile of debris including discarded blankets remained on Rifai's lawn. She said fire officials spent the night near the home, watching for hot spots.

A fire insurance investigator and Calgary fire officials were still going through the wreckage. Five vehicles were parked nearby. The rear window of a minivan was blown out.

Gar Gar, a leader in Calgary's South Sudanese community, said efforts were being made to provide financial help to those who were injured.

He said it appears all of the victims are from South Sudan. He and some of the victims' family members met at one of the hospitals where the injured were taken.

"I met a son who came to the hospital and went in and saw his dad and you could see the tears in his eyes. That sounds like it's related to something that he saw and the shape his father is in," Gar said. 

"There are family members, cousins, uncles and their nephews and nieces. Eventually, those will be the houses that some of them, when they get out of the hospital, might also be hoping to get back in." 

Gar said after hearing about the explosion and seeing its aftermath, he can't believe no one died.

"To hear that they're still fighting for their lives and some of them are stable — that by itself is a miracle and we give thanks for the responders who came in and took them so quick," he said. 

Gar said if all 10 victims were living inside the home, he wants to know why.

"We're hoping to rally around those families and the community to come together and to support them where we can." 

The cause of the explosion is under review. Acting Battalion Chief Scott Owen said investigators remain at the scene and continue to interview witnesses.

Owen said at this point it's possible that the cause was a natural gas explosion.

"For an explosion of this magnitude, in a residence, natural gas or propane would be the leading candidate," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023. 

Bill Graveland and Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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