by Jack Poirier for the Sarnia Observer

(2003) It was the blast that changed Chemical Valley.

There have been many industrial accidents over the years. But arguably, none was more significant than the Polymer blast that was heard – and seen – throughout the county. On the warm spring night of May 6, 1951, Sarnia’s sky glowed with flickering light as flame shot high into the air following a powerful explosion at the plant’s extraction unit around 10:40 p.m. It was a fierce blast that was heard 100 kilometres away in London and Detroit, The Observer reported.

The explosion occurred inside a partly-filled butadiene drum, projecting the volatile substance high into the sky before it erupted in a spectacular fireball. People in Bad Axe, Mich. reported seeing the glow 130 kilometres away. Witnesses said it “arose in the air like an atom bomb blast.” Unaware of the danger, onlookers took up a perch on a nearby fence line, smoking cigarettes as they watched the action.

Observer staff, quick on the scene, described how the low, mournful wail of the company’s fire whistle was soon joined by a rush of ambulances and fire trucks. As people gathered to watch, they were hit by a gust of hot, violent air, some choking on thick, black smoke that drifted across the city. With no emergency plans in place and little information available to the public, some local residents feared the worst was yet to come.

Local hotel proprietor Stephen Jackson told The Observer he saw children crying as they were bundled into cars by parents carrying suitcases. “The confusion and panic was pathetic,” he said. “It looked like one of those evacuation scenes from war-torn Korea…”

Damage at the $60 million synthetic rubber and chemical plant was estimated at $100,000, the equivalent of millions by today’s standards. More importantly, the accident spelled the need for an emergency system that could provide information to the public in a quick and accurate fashion. Three days later, the Chemical Valley Traffic Control Committee was formed and Sarnia followed with the Firefighting Mutual Aid Committee. Together, they evolved into what today is known as CAER, Community Awareness Emergency Response.

CAER went on to become a model organization. Its mandate is to ensure the city is prepared and equipped to handle any emergency in Chemical Valley.