Prepared by Parks not Planes
On Saturday October 22, 2022, the residents of Bathurst Quay were forced from their homes for eight hours due to a bomb scare at the Toronto Island Airport.
Parks Not Planes believes that this incident highlights some major safety concerns about the airport's proximity to a residential community. It also raises serious questions about police communication during the incident, as well as the airport's overall emergency preparedness.
While the events are not entirely clear, we now know enough about what happened to start asking questions (bolded in this article), demanding answers, and learning lessons from this episode.
Those lessons can help to ensure any future potential emergency is handled far more professionally, and with far more attention to the needs of those affected.
A public meeting on this issue will be held on Thursday, December 1 from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at the Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre, 627 Queens Quay W. in the dance studio.
The meeting is co‑sponsored by Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Association, York Quay Neighbourhood Association, and Toronto Island Community Association.
Invited to provide answers to our questions and yours are representatives of the Toronto police and Ports Toronto. Please come.
The meeting will also be available via Zoom – please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request the Zoom link. The meeting link will be sent to you closer to the meeting date.
An Associated Press story, that received worldwide attention, (even appearing in Outlook India) said this:
2 Detained, Toronto Island Airport Evacuated In Bomb Scare
Flights at the Toronto Island airport were suspended, and passengers were ordered evacuated as police reported a possible explosive device was found near the airport's ferry terminal.
Police said two people had been detained and were cooperating with the investigation.
Police said they were called shortly before 4 pm on Saturday to Billy Bishop airport's mainland ferry terminal to investigate a suspicious package.
“We are dealing with a potential explosive device,” Toronto police said in a tweet.
Two residential buildings near the ferry terminal also were evacuated and a third was partially evacuated.
The airport said its runway was closed and two Air Canada flights were diverted to Hamilton, Ontario.
Passengers stranded inside the terminal for several hours said they were being evacuated by water taxis.
“Runway is closed for the evening. Porter has completed its flight schedule for the evening. Two Air Canada flights diverted to Hamilton. Passengers remaining in the terminal are being evacuated at present. Tunnel/ferry remains closed,” Billy Bishop Airport said in a tweet.
Was there a bomb?
A makeshift additional battery was duct‑taped to an electric bicycle parked at the land‑side ferry terminal for the Toronto Island Airport.
A Ports Toronto representative thought it suspicious and called police.
The two “persons of interest” who were questioned by police were the bike rider, and the person who owned the bike, whom the rider borrowed it from.
From reports, they appear to have been arrested. On the facts as we know them, it’s hard to understand how police found “reasonable and probable grounds” for their arrest. Both were released without charges.
“We’re doing our best to investigate [the two individuals] and learn what they know as quickly as we can,” Acting Insp. Jason Albanese said that day.
The photo shows that the duct tape was cut to remove the offending object. How was it cut? Did the police use a robot?
Presumably, police bomb experts, who were on the scene almost immediately, can recognize the difference between a bomb and a battery. As anyone who travels through airport security knows, there are very sophisticated detection devices readily available. Were they used?
According to a Toronto Sun story,
“It (appeared to have) a digital timer and tested positive for two substances used in explosives,” said an airport insider.”
Is that fact? Are there pictures? What were those tests? What substances were found?
A police officer at the scene stated “The device on its face surprised even our experts”.
What was surprising?
When did they discover the battery was not a bomb? The police bomb squad truck was observed by many residents to be leaving the scene on or before 6:30 p.m. Why?
It took until 11:30 that night for the police to detonate the battery in two “controlled explosions”. Why two? Were they face‑saving gestures to excuse their apparent gross over‑reaction?
Why did it take from 4 p.m. until almost midnight to resolve this?
Why was a police sniper posted?
Will Ports Toronto and Toronto police share their internal reports so that the community can fully understand how matters unfolded?
Communications to the community, and attention to their well‑being
During an emergency, communications with those affected – for their own safety, for their understanding of the potential dangers they face, and how they need to prepare for them ‑ is essential.
Every school has such a plan. In this incident, it became apparent that neither Ports Toronto, that operates the Island Airport, nor the police had one.
Residents in buildings within an approximately 1,000‑foot radius of the ferry terminal were told by police to leave their homes at about 4:30 p.m. Fire alarms were pulled by police in buildings where no public address system was available.
Within that radius live many elderly, many children, and a number of individuals with disabilities, some severe.
The evacuation area extended north to include Lakeshore Blvd, seriously snarling traffic for hours. All traffic had to divert to the Gardiner which slowed to a crawl. Anyone living in and around had trouble getting home.
While the weather that afternoon was pleasant, it became chillier into the evening. Residents had no access to warmer clothing or places to sit down.
No washroom facilities were available.
The supper hour came and went, but no food was available for those evacuated.
Only after pointed requests by the community were TTC buses brought for “warming”, and pizza provided.
And only after the “controlled detonations” of the bicycle battery at 11:30 that night were residents permitted to enter their homes.
It was too obvious that no thought had been given by either Ports Toronto or Toronto police to the well‑being of local residents.
Throughout the eight‑hour evacuation, there was no communication, from either Ports Toronto or Toronto police as the nature of the problem, except for one tweet from Toronto Police Operations:
POLICE INVESTIGATION: Billy Bishop Airport Ferry Terminal 3:49pm - On the mainland - Police are on scene investigating a suspicious package - The area is being evacuated - EDU (Emergency Disposal Unit) is on the way - Will update when more info is available #GO2056479
The only follow-up tweet occurred after the detonations, at 12:14 a.m.:
POLICE INVESTIGATION: UPDATE Billy Bishop Airport Ferry Terminal - Police have conducted a controlled detonation - The area is now safe - Residents can return home - Roads are now open - Thank-you for your patience:
Mike Antle, who is responsible for security for Ports Toronto, told community members even he wasn’t kept in the loop by Toronto police. He knew nothing about the evacuation of buildings, road closures, warming buses etc. Once the police were involved he said all the rest was out of his hands and he did not get any reports from them.
He was asked if he had contacted anyone from Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Association or York Quay Neighbourhood Association so that they could communicate with their residents. He seemed surprised and it seemed he did not know or think of this. He seemed not to know that challenged individuals live in buildings near the airport nor did he think of engaging the Community Centre or the School.
Why did neither the police nor Ports Toronto have a plan for communicating to, and assisting, Bathurst Quay residents in an emergency?
Shouldn’t residents be given education on how a bomb exploding at the Airport – or a airplane crash – might impact them, and how they might protect themselves?
The presence of an airport in the midst of a residential neighbourhood creates significant challenges when an emergency situation arises.
As the intense security searches of departing airline passengers makes clear, the potential for terrorist attack, and other forms of violence, is significantly heightened at airports, and on aircraft.
The Island Airport is more vulnerable than other airports to such an attack as it is unprotected from the water, which surrounds it on three sides.
The lease from the City for a key portion of the Airport lands expires on June 30, 2033, This vulnerability, and the appropriateness of siting an Airport in the midst of a residential area, should be important matters for consideration in discussions on the use of the Airport lands post‑2033.
An effective Island Airport emergency response
We saw how many emergency vehicles attended the incident on October 22 – some have estimated there were over 30 – police, fire and ambulance.
All arrived with their lights flashing, and sirens blaring, as, at that point, it was a potentially serious emergency, and they were all urgently needed.
But what would have happened if the incident had occurred on the island and not on the mainland? How could all those vehicles get to the site of the emergency?
The answer is obvious: they couldn’t.
The Airport ferry can carry at best four large emergency vehicles (two aerials and two pumpers) with a turnaround time of about 15 minutes.
The problem of operating an Airport on an island was identified as a major safety issue in an expert report prepared some years ago. It was that report that led Lisa Raitt, then CEO of what is now called Ports Toronto, to state in a press release on October 16, 2003:
"The fixed link is a public safety issue. The need for a bridge to get emergency equipment to the airport quickly was identified by an intergovernmental committee almost 10 years ago." said Ms. Raitt. "In the event of an emergency, it could take up to two hours to get the appropriate equipment over to the island and that's not acceptable."
While the bridge was stopped by an intense community effort, Raitt and Porter Airlines ignored that safety concern and greatly expanded the Airport’s commercial airline operation.
The October 22 event is a powerful reminder that the emergency access issue remains unaddressed and needs to be dealt with – preferably by finally recognizing that a busy commercial airport has no place on an island – nor in the midst of a residential neighbourhood.
As one Bathurst Quay resident put it:
Consider this incident a gift — we now know that the airport management is incapable of handling a fake bomb on a bicycle. What if anything big and real happened?
All of our questions demand answers. Toronto police, and Ports Toronto need to be accountable for their apparently shoddy handling of this incident, and non‑existent communication during it. The waterfront communities are entitled to much better.
Parks not Planes