The Barry Building Explosion

by Dan Crosby

North Bay, Ontario January 1975

1. It may have happened something like this.

Once I left the garden hose running overnight and drowned my father’s prize petunias. In the morning, the sidewalk beside the flower garden was creamed with a thin stream of soil, dotted here and there with the washed up carcasses of flowers, their tangled roots like so many broken limbs, petals pasted to the cement as if with crazy glue.

My father rarely swore.

“Damn it, boy. I told you to turn off the water after supper. How could you forget?”

As I stared down at the pitiful remains of the flower bed, my father’s strange and heavy hand on my shoulder, I had no answer to give him. I never answered in fact. How could I tell why I forgot? How could I explain something I did not do?
Maybe it started like that.

A natural gas line, clipped perhaps by a construction crew the day before (workers were reinforcing the foundation, damaged by 14 winters), seeps poison all night long into the cellar of the Barry Building. At daybreak, like a fine English mist, the gas creeps modestly up stairwells, clouds in unused corners, finds secret harbors above drinking fountains. A thin layer of condensation forms on a mirror. A budgie in Dr. Bernard’s office, its cage covered for the night, chirps gravely at the subtle intrusion.

Unnoticed all morning long, the Barrie Building fills with enough power to tear the side of a mountain from its roots.

2. Various images of the Barry Building, before and after the explosion:

Spring, 1961. The Barry Building is raised on McIntyre Street in North Bay, Ontario, a quiet unobtrusive town, ravaged by cold and snow 7 months of the year, shadflies and mosquitoes the rest of the time, a town, however, not used to disasters. Though only four stories, the building is an impressive structure in the heart of the business community, and attracts the services of some of the city’s best dentists and optometrists. The North Bay Nugget runs a photo of the new building on page 6 with a caption that reads in part, “City continues to grow – William R. Barry….”

October, 1967. The McIntyre Street entrance is re-designed and a new façade added. Dr. Gilles Renoit, General Physician, sets up a clinic on the first floor. He is one of the most respected doctors in the city, and his office becomes one of the busier places in this part of town. Dr. Renoit sometimes sees 30-40 patients per day.

January 9, 1975. The Barry Building houses 4 dentists, 3 optometrists, the clinic of Dr. Renoit – now by far the most popular in the city – a lawyer, the office of a city official, and a family of four who rent the basement apartment.

Approximately 250 people visit the Barry Building now on a typical business day.

At exactly 3:31 that afternoon, the Barry Building explodes – in 3-4 seconds, it vanishes with deafening thunder, much of the building blown outwards, the remains falling into itself, flames leaping 70 feet from the ruins.

January 10, 1975. The North Bay Nugget runs a cover photo of the Barry Building, now described as a “heap of smoldering rubble.”

3. Mrs. M. Schultz does not like dentists.

Gazing into her mirror at 9 am on the morning of January 9, Mrs. Schultz thinks her aching tooth, which may be infected, which may now be leaking poison into her skull, causing cancer, seems better this morning, the swelling having retreated somewhat, and may not need attention after all. Such an unnecessary fuss her husband had made about her seeing the dentist.

Mrs. M. Schultz knows she is fooling herself, but is willing to be fooled.

“A few aspirin, and I’ll be fine,” she says to herself in the mirror.

She’ll phone the office of Dr. Jules Bernard at the Barry Building and cancel her appointment. Secretly pleased, perhaps Mrs. Schultz will spend her day shopping, having tea at the Donnelly Restaurant, maybe return the library books she has been meaning to take back. Anything, she decides, but keep her appointment with the dentist.

Mrs M. Schultz is known as a lucky woman. If someone were to ask the members of her Bridge Club about Mary Schultz, they would likely remark on her marriage of 35 years to Warren, her participation in the School Arts Program, her continuing weight problem. And they would say that Mary Schultz is a lucky woman.

The previous summer, her only son, playing basketball in their driveway, was invited by friends to join them on a midnight cruise on Trout Lake, one of the boys having stolen the keys to his father’s fishing boat. Jason Schultz at first agreed to go, ran into the house to gather his shorts and some beer, but inexplicably changed his mind – “just one of those things,” he later explained – dropping the bottles back into the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, and sending his friends off without him.

“Wuss,” someone shouted at Jason as the car peeled out of the driveway.
Several hours later, the boys’ boat, drifting quietly in the middle of Trout Lake, was struck by a high-speed craft driven by a drunken ex-policeman from Powassan. One boy, leaning over the railing sea-sick, was killed instantly, three others drowned as the boat, split nearly in half, sank to the bottom of the lake in less than 40 seconds. There was only one survivor, pulled from the lake by the drunken ex-policeman, who asked the boy what the hell he was doing there in the lake.

Hearing the news in the morning, after Jason told his mother of his near-escape, Mrs. Schultz grabbed her son and refused to let go, hanging on until Mr. Schultz, coming down to breakfast and not knowing what was happening, separated them several minutes later.

Mrs. Mary Schultz, as they say, is a lucky woman.

Mrs. Schultz’s appointment with Dr. Bernard at the Barry Building was scheduled for exactly 6 minutes before the explosion. Instead of being in the building at that time, she is sipping tea and enjoying a croissant at the Donnelly Restaurant, speaking to an old friend who she went to school with but has not seen in some fifteen years.

“Imagine the two of us living in North Bay all this time and never once running into each other,” Mrs. Schultz muses. “We were such friends in school and now today we meet. What luck.”

Sirens in the distance, but growing nearer, interrupted their conversation.

4. Crack. Pop. Snap.

What is the sound of a single grain of air igniting?

Blam. Ka-boom. Swoosh.

A crack of thunder, with the force to tip over a wine-glass several blocks away.

Ear-splitting, Mind-blasting. Heart thumping.

What is the loudest noise you can imagine?

Jet planes. Rockets. Splitting atoms.

Landslide. Earthquake. Krakatau.

At 3:31 on January 9, 1975, the Barry Building on McIntyre Street in North Bay, Ontario, exploded and disappeared into a heap of burning rubble.

Erupted.

Blown away.

History.

To Kingdom Come.

5. The colours of the Barry Building explosion.

Most witnesses remember seeing white: “If there was any colour at all, if that sort of confusion has colour, than it must have been white – or if not white, than a brilliance which is the absence of colour – a shock that erases colour. I remember everything turning a brilliant white, a shocking white, that’s all.” (Dr. Gilles Renoit, who was attending a patient at the time of the explosion, the floor giving way beneath him.)

Red: “The flames came nearly as suddenly as the explosion – as if the explosion were a match, lighting coal on a barbeque. Within minutes, the flames were taller than the building they consumed.” (Reg Willey, Bus Driver, who was across the street having a coffee, and was one of the first by-standers on the scene, helping the injured escape the flames.)

Blue: “The afternoon shift at the police station was just changing, more than 50 officers were in the vicinity. Survivors lifted themselves from the rubble to see a wall of blue uniforms pouring at them, the officers’ quick response no doubt responsible for saving numerous lives.” (Karen Vincenzi, Reporter, The North Bay Nugget.)

Red: “Eight Dead in Cities Worst Disaster.” (The colour of the headline from The North Bay Nugget, January 9, 1975, clipped from the paper by the author when he was 10 years old.)

6. The picture display window of the Dunlop Hardware store directly across the street from the Barry Building shattered like the thin ice atop a watering can in an October garden. Even as shocked passers-by shook shreds of glass from their shoes and watched the horror unfold across the street, Alex Unwin, a patient in the office of Dr. Bernard, still wearing the dentist’s frock, now somewhat bloodied, stepped from the picture window, grateful for the helping hand of a passer-by, and walked calmly towards the arms of waiting emergency workers.
Alex Unwin was the man who flew, blown clear out of the Barry Building, across the street, into the picture window of Dunlop Hardware, landing amidst a display of snowshoes and animal traps. Although treated for shock, and kept overnight in hospital for observation, he was generally unharmed.

Interviewed by the author years later, Mr. Unwin had no memory of the blast, of flying across the street, of stepping from the picture window.

“Do you recall hearing anything?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“Do you remember even the sensation of emptiness, perhaps an indication of something missing in time?”

I needed to know. I wanted to put my finger on that vacancy, on that absence of memory, as if it were something terribly important, if not to Mr. Unwin, than to myself. That moment of not knowing seemed to me like the mystery of mysteries.

“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t remember any of it.”

7. For over 30 years I have been bullied by the Barry Building explosion. Even after all this time, I can still feel its hands on my back – pushing, shoving, kicking my feet from beneath me. Oozing its memory into my conscious.
For I was there. Twenty or 30 seconds before the explosion, walking past the McIntyre Street entrance, 10 years old on my way home from school, stepping aside as a woman and her daughter emerge from a taxi, moving up the steps (the daughter survived, the woman did not, her picture in the paper the next morning).

Having put 10, 15 paces between me and the building, a millisecond of space to a shockwave, I honestly don’t remember the moment of the explosion, only the feel of it afterwards. Neither do I remember falling, only laying on the sidewalk, bits of glass and metal falling all around me, as if I had crashed clumsily into a chandelier.

I stumbled back to the destruction, saw the flames erupt like fireworks, the wall of blue policeman arrive from across the street, a man emerging alive from a picture window. I saw something dragged from the ruins, laid near my feet – a body, bloodied and broken, the first victim pulled from the rubble. Then, like an elastic band, I snapped backwards and ran all the way home.

My mother embraced me on the front porch, having already heard a few initial details of the disaster on the radio, the first inaccurate and exaggerated reports – one caller had reported that an entire block was gone, another that it was a plane crash – and knowing that I passed that way on my way home from school. She held me and laughed, relieved to find me safe. Then her laughter turned to screams and she became hysterical.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” she screamed.

Her caressing, comforting hands raised from my back were bloodstained. She whipped me around and pulled up my shirt, searching for wounds, shrapnel, embedded glass … but finding nothing.

That was the worst part of all – the blood on the back of my jacket was not my own.

8. Item C-246-1.

Half a red brick, discovered 168 meters from the Barry Building, and believed to be the item of consequence hurled furthest by the blast (no doubt several smaller unrecognizable particles – stones, glass, woodchips – were thrown much further, perhaps even several blocks, gathering like dust on a windshield, across the back of a sleeping dog.). Examining photographs of the building, investigators believed the brick, due to its unusual colour, was part of a repair job, completed several years before the explosion, directly above a first floor window.

A pedestrian walking along Campbell Drive, knowing that half a block away the Barry Building has disappeared, ran into the street regardless of traffic, examined the brick, pointing at it as if it were the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

The brick was left untouched for nearly six hours, ambulances and fire engines steering to avoid it, till just after dark when Officer Howard Spieglar approached the object, drew a chalk circle around it, photographed it, and finally dropped it into a plastic bag, watched by gaping onlookers.

(The brick is currently in the possession of the North Bay Chamber of Commerce and displayed in the City Museum on Cassel Street.)

9. At approximately 10:00 the next morning, January 10, 1975, fire-fighters, sifting through the remains of the Barry Building, piling rubble into great heaps onto McIntyre Street, discovered the remnants of the original main floor of the building, recognizing the foyer’s marble floor and decorative baseboards, all intact and relatively unscratched. The remains were buried more than 5 feet below street level.

Later that evening, a shaken 10 year old boy cut the entire front page from The North Bay Nugget and tacked it onto his bedroom wall. Mystified by the suddenness of the disaster, its brute and unprejudiced force, the ease of its destruction (like flicking a light switch, he thought), he will read and reread the report for months and months – the story growing like a myth inside him – until the newspaper itself slowly hardens, turns yellow, curls at the edges, and the boy removes it from the wall, slips it into a clear plastic bag, and places it safely in a cardboard shoebox, preserved there for 30 years and more.

Here it is in my hands. A ghost, a time-traveler, old and frail, tapping me on my shoulder, nudging me, like an ancient acquaintance met by chance on the street, saying “Where is it now, that moment, the gas, the explosion? Where is the bully, pushing me to the ground, blood splashing my back?”

My hands tremble. I am surprised at myself. I am speechless. I did not think the shockwaves from the blast, weak and miniscule now, sub-atomic, could have traveled this far.

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Dan Crosby is a teacher and writer living with his wife, three children, and dog, Charlie, in Whitby, Ont. He has published short fiction and poetry in many of Canada’s leading journals, including The Fiddlehead, Event, Carousel, and The Windsor Review. He is also a previous winner of Scrivener’s Short Story Contest.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Marla Julian

    The Barry Building tragedy happened on January 8th, 1975. The story appeared in the Nugget on the 9th.

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