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Niagara Falls
Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Bus driver has front row seat to massive chemical explosion
Sher Donovan, a St. Catharines bus driver, saw the explosion from the bus lot next door to Ssonix Thursday morning. Evan Loree

Swimming with sharks was a little less scary than this. 

Back when she worked as a marine biologist, Sher Donovan used to swim with sharks for fun.

After retiring and returning to Canada from Roatan, a little island off the coast of Honduras, Donovan picked up a job as a school bus driver with Switzer-Carty Transportation.

Most days are pretty much the same. Wake up at 5 a.m., out the door by 6 and then onto her daily route. 

The morning of the fatal explosion and fire at the Ssonix Products industrial waste disposal facility, Donovan was filling up her tank at the back of the bus lot. 

The air was cool and the first rays of morning sun had not quite pierced the sky. 

She was gassing up her bus at about 6:30 a.m. when the big kaboom happened.

She heard it more than she felt it, as she was standing about 500 feet away.

“It was quite a shock when you’re standing next to a fuel tank witnessing an explosion,” she told The Lake Report. “I thought it was a fireworks factory at first.”

Dropping the gas cap, she looked around the back of her bus and was startled to see what caused the big bang. 

“What I saw was a plume of smoke about maybe 150 feet high,” she said.

It looked like there were fireworks and black cardboard boxes shooting out of the explosion.

It sounded like it, too, as the initial blast was followed by a series of smaller explosions. 

Donovan didn’t have much time to wonder at what it was, so she hopped in the bus and notified her team via radio to call 911.

Rounding the bend of Keefer Road on her way out, she saw her co-workers were already beginning to evacuate the offices of Switzer-Carty.

“I knew something had exploded but I didn’t know why, or what the company was,” she said 

Some of her co-workers were already speculating and a few were close to the mark.

“They said it was a waste management place and that, environmentally, something must be going on which caused the explosion,” her colleagues were saying. 

By the time Donovan reached the intersection of Keefer and Seaway Haulage roads, the police were already there blocking roads and directing traffic.

“They were letting people out. So, I got out and then just proceeded to do my route,” she said. 

For a day that started with a bang, it got back to normal fairly soon for the retired marine biologist. 

“The wind was taking the smoke over the lake anyway,” she said. “Even if they evacuate the area, I didn’t see any big deal happening,” she added.

She managed to keep in the loop throughout the morning, though, as a student on her bus kept sharing updates as they came in. 

Several bus routes were cancelled due to the explosion, but Donovan’s wasn’t one of them.

The bus drivers set up a temporary base at the Mandarin restaurant parking lot on Bunting Road in St. Catharines.

“Everybody came together to help drive anybody if they needed rides,” Donovan said, adding she enjoys working for the company.

The fires were mostly out and the air was safe to breathe by the end of the day, so “everyone was back in the office by five o’clock.”

As startling as the explosion was, the low point of her day was when Donovan found a $75 ticket on her bus after having to park it off-site in downtown St. Catharines. 

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