12,000 Sitting Ducks

by Franke James

drawing by Franke James

drawing by Franke James of wet newspaper

drawing by Franke James of wet newspaper and thomas homer-dixon book cover

drawing and photos by Franke James of DVD's

drawing by Franke James of yoga man

writing by Franke James, Photos from video by saejinoh at

writing by Franke James,  Photos from video by saejinoh at

writing by Franke James, Photos from video by saejinoh at

drawing by Franke James

drawing by Franke James using text from, globe and mail, and toronto star articles.

drawing by Franke James of lamp and purse.

drawing by Franke James of black swan and her husband.

drawing by Franke James of black swan cloud and four leaf clover.

Google Map satellite image before the explosion at Sunrise Propane, plus drawing of danger sign by Franke James

drawings of sitting ducks by Franke James

Franke James interpretive sketch of artist Guy Billout's Time Magazine cover, December 4, 2006, Canadian edition

drawing of joker by Franke James

Franke James drawing of iphone

Franke James drawing of circle

Franke James list: HOW-NOT-TO-BE-A-SITTING-DUCK: Study your neighborhood.; Identify hazardous materials/risks. ; Use Google to research dangers, history and locations.; Make a family Emergency Plan and Kit.; Talk to your neighbors and agree on an Action Plan.; Contact 3rd party experts for advice.; Get all your 'ducks in a row' before contacting government.; Document all communication in writing; If local government agency doesn't respond, go higher up.; If no one in government responds, go to the media (radio, print, TV, blogs); Issue press release and send to all including govt, media.; Don't give up. Be persistent.; Support COMMUNITY RIGHT TO KNOW legislation as in NYC.

“Twelve Thousand Sitting Ducks” copyright 2008 Franke James
Photographs, illustrations and writing by Franke James, MFA
YouTube video photographs courtesy Saejinoh.

Background Research:

The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon
City zoned out on regulation of its propane industry by John Barber, The Globe and Mail, 08/12/08
Explosion that Rocked City could have been far worse by Dr. Thomas S. Axworthy, The Toronto Star, 08/17/08
Wikipedia on The Black Swan
New York City Community Right to Know Press Release by Mayor Bloomberg


August 10, 2008 Toronto, ON:

Explosion at Sunrise Propane. YouTube video by saejinoh

2007 Tacoma, Washington explosion

A 2007 Tacoma, Washington explosion at the Atlas Castings foundry critically injured the delivery truck driver. The truck carrying 8,000 lb. of propane exploded, igniting an adjacent propane tank at the foundry and sending deadly tank shrapnel in all directions. There were only four injuries in this BLEVE and surprisingly no casualties.

2006 Milwaukee, Wisconsin explosion

December 2006, a large propane explosion at the Falk industrial facility resulted in 47 injuries and three deaths. The Falk Corporation industrial complex, a major industrial employer near downtown Milwaukee, experienced a massive propane gas explosion and fire that completely leveled the facility, spreading detritus for miles around. Several Falk employees recognized the sulfurous smell of leaking gas just before the explosion and were in the midst of an emergency plant evacuation at the time of the tank ruptured. Had managers not called for an evacuation, many more company workers would have perished in the blaze.

Other Major Propane Accidents

1984 Mexico City: Propane storage facility explosion killed more than 500.
1978 Spain: Propane cargo tanker exploded, killing 200 and injuring 100 more.

In May 2013, Franke James published this essay, and seven others, in Banned on the Hill. Read more here and buy it below at

Buy Banned on the Hill at


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50 Responses: 39 Comments and 11 Tweets

  • Wow, Franke, another fantastic visual essay. and a great lesson. with some parallels with climate change situation.

    Today, I spent more time reading, thinking about global biodiversity crisis, and wrote Getting biodiversity onto the cultural radar. Will we wake up for that one?


    PS- thanks so much for comment on Huffington Post. My first post there, I was so excited!

  • Julie says:

    Hi Franke,
    We left quite early last Monday for a camping trip in an isolated area, so heard nothing about the propane explosions until today. Your piece reported it brilliantly. Thank you. I’m so sad for the loved ones of the people who died, but so glad that so many thousands were spared.

    Look how synchronicitous this was. Just today, I was writing up a notice for an upcoming meeting we’re planning: “A well-organized program and cadre of volunteers has Pender Island ready for any possible sort of potential emergency that might perhaps someday maybe happen. What we are not preparing for is the global emergency that is already impacting many regions around the world. For that reason, we’re holding a first meeting of the Pender Planetary Emergency Response Team (PPERT), to learn about the climate change emergency and to figure out what we need to be doing as a community to respond to it.”

    As Marguerite said above, there are some real parallels between your-life-changes-in-a-flash emergencies like the propane explosion and the our-whole-world-is-changing-right-before-our-eyes emergency of global warming that’s so hard to perceive. But people — especially our young people — have a right to know how bad the situation is, and there aren’t many people brave enough to tell them.

    I’ll be sharing this visual essay with the attendees of our first PPERT meeting!
    For the Earth, the Children, and the Future

  • Martin Edic says:

    Expect more of these as people start seeking more fuel sources from non-traditional sources, using the wrong materials to heat homes (like gas stoves and grills) and as population increases (North America gains 40% by 2050!).
    Your daughter’s point (it won’t happen during my time in office) is the biggest problem with having elected officials deal with safety, environmental and energy issues:
    The solutions are global and long term and their attention spans are local and short term.

  • This really is brilliant. Thank you for sharing it with me, and thank you for enlightening me on a very effective way to reach a wide audience.


  • This is great. It’s particularly relevant as governments, running scared from our current energy crisis, start considering alternatives like *nuclear power plants*. Because you know if there’s an explosion at a nuclear plant one heck of a lot more people are going to die, whether or not it’s 4am on a Sunday. Do we value cheap energy more than people’s lives?


  • LaDonna Coy says:

    This is a wonderful convergence point to consider the physical and the social environments in community – and your list translates well to the social environment. Study the neighborhood, identify risks like alcohol outlet density, low social engagement and disorganization, over promotion of alcohol near schools. Talk and listen to neighbors and family members, especially tweens and teens; get involved in a local coalition (or start one); look to the research and engage other communities who’ve been there, find out what worked for them; document everything – especially new or modified programs, practices or policies; partner and collaborate everywhere you can; apply pressure where necessary; support community action in whatever way you can to develop the community you want or be willing to settle for the community you get.

    That’s my take on it Franke — maybe if we follow your advice on the physical environment we’ll be more likely to notice and take action on the social environment too? Each affects our physical and mental health in ways that wind up causing a lot of what appears on that list of diseases.


  • Thanks Franke for a powerful message. When will the public wake up to all the signs of trouble. Julie is right. There are strong parallels to global warming and our youth need to understand the consequences of our actions. Perhaps instead of call it global warming (which sounds good to people in the middle of winter!) or climate change (which is just confusing because change doesn’t necessarily mean bad!) we should call it climate chaos! We have been working for 13 years to get Ministries of Education to reform education to give our young people to knowledge, skills, and perspectives to make more sustainable choices. As with anti-smoking, drinking and driving, and the blue box, they will lead social change on climate change and other issues of sustainability. We must help them understand the world from a systems perspective, everything and everyone is connected to everything! That is tough to achieve in a compartmentalized education system that addresses science for 70 minutes, then geography for 70 minutes…. and won’t let the kids out of the classroom into the community more than once a semester!! No wonder they don’t see the connections!!

    Learning for a Sustainable Future

  • Allison says:

    Beautifully done, Franke. It really makes one think and put things into perspective. It’s sad that it takes a catastrophic event to finally make people think about their safety.

  • Unfortunately (or fortunately) we were in Montreal over that weekend on a family vacation so we missed the event. I’ve been talking to a few friends who had a similar experience to you, albeit you really did a stunning job at capturing the emotions of the experience.

  • Elise says:

    I’ve now received your wonderful graphic essay from 3 different people, and have to say what a great message you’ve artfully packaged!

    Unfortunately, I was trying to pilot a French family of 6 into Toronto via the 401 on that Sunday morning to visit the ROM from Milton, where I live. After about four and a half hours in the car we escaped north on the 400 and went to York U to have lunch in the mall there. Then took another hour or more to get downtown. We hadn’t realized the extent of the explosion until that night… so I sent your essay to France to give them a better idea of what had happened. And the many important issues you raise…

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and original way of making people see and think. The world needs more of it. Have a wonderful rest of summer.


  • queeny colleny says:

    As I live my life by the lake every summer sans a wrist watch and on a TV news/paper fast, I find myself blissfully happy being ignorant to the craziness of our real world. Yet, somehow I find myself like a moth drawn to a light reading your photo essays…. thus keeping me some what grounded in the real world. In Colleens world its colorful, creative and full of character, with no pollution, war or global warming.
    If I could please ask for a lifetime subscription to ‘the world according to Franke’, I would be most grateful. I love your work so much. It makes me think (ouch), it makes me laugh, and it makes me cry (bagpipes do the same thing) it’s all good. Keep reeling me back into the real world girl.
    thanks. xo

  • Wow. Having lived in and about industrial areas, we have had our share of concerns, whether it is the acidic smell from the pulp mill, the stink of chicken from the processing plant, the proximity to massive oil and coal tankers, or the fact that we drove past the petroleum products holding facility for our city every time we left the suburb.

    It makes you realize the risks we take by placing our trust in corporations, and the authorities who are often ill equipped to analyze the risks being presented. Thanks again for a great post.


  • Communicating with a Story

    12,000 Sitting Ducks

    I use words every day to communicate, sometimes I write thousands of words a day. Not everyone can or wants to read what I write, sometimes it’s too technical, sometimes it’s just in too much of a niche for many people to care about.

    But when there is an event that everyone cares about or wants to know something about, building a picture or telling a story is one of the most powerful methods of communicating. Sometimes I forget that. Tonight I was reminded by Franke James’ blog called My Green Conscience — I finally caught up in my reading and was floored by the simplicity, (and the effort).

    The post puts a personal spin on the explosion in Toronto, and through good background research, images and simple text the story unfolds.

    The beauty of blogging — the ability to loosen the formalities and tell a story to engage readers, listeners or customers.

    What story do you have waiting to be told?

  • Kathryn Hall says:

    Well done, Franke! This piece should get major attention. It’s a wake up call to all of who go about our lives thinking “they” have taken care of everything. Anyone who watched the unfolding horrors of Katrina or the thousands of beloved pets who died in America who ate Chinese dog food should know by now that “they” are not necessarily watching out for the common good. They are unconscious folks who are interested only in what they are interested in and that’s not US. You must learn to watch out for yourselves and your neighbors. Have a plan. Just in case.

  • Blogged by BlogTO

    12,000 Sitting Ducks Chronicles Propane Explosion

    Back in July we posted a story about a North York woman who had torn up her driveway and replaced it with a much more eco-friendly alternative. All the while she chronicled her adventures in a great photo essay called Paradise Unpaved.

    Well, now Franke James is at it again. But this time she has a photo essay of the recent propane explosion. It’s called 12,000 sitting ducks. Check it out.

  • greig clark says:

    well done again Franke. you always put such a different, but very interesting perspective on things

    we woke up and thought it was thunder too BUT the regular explosions were a bit much. I thought it was maybe a munitions dump at the old airforce base being readied for Afghanistan……

    and wondered if the Americans were ticked off at us for taking a gold medal from them that day or something…..

    great work

    greig and carolyn

  • Mother Earth says:

    when something like this hits so close to home and you realize it’s happened elsewhere and still the same mistakes are made it’s absolutely maddening

    portrayed beautifully franke in the style and wit I admire, my favorite ” what were they thinking? ”

    I don’t think they were

  • Franke James says:

    Thanks to everyone who has left comments. It’s fascinating for me as an artist to read people’s reactions and why 12,000 Sitting Ducks speaks to them. Here are two comments from the Twitterverse about this essay:

    Michelle Riggens: “When’s the last time a cartoon made you cry?…”

    Wadesmom / Carolyn Stephens on Twitter made this comment: “Reading another awesome post by @frankejames. Reminds me of the time the rocket fuel plant exploded in Henderson, NV. Yeah, it did.”

  • Franke, another wonderful essay. You have become one of my most anticipated reads, I look forward to seeing another 1 next to your name in Google Reader.

    On a more sober note, it seems that our governments continue to look at short term solutions to our problems. Your suggestions to avoid being a sitting duck are exactly right. I hope we never see another violent revolution, but people can revolt in peaceful ways more effectively than ever before.

  • Telling a Story Persuasively With Pictures:
    I wrote last month about Back of the Napkin, which teaches you to use sketches to tell a powerful story. Franke James uses graphics to write “visual essays” on her blog, most recently to tell the story of last week’s Toronto propane plant explosion, and why it should never have happened.

  • Chris Orbz says:

    I’ve been away from the city this summer and this story has been the one I’ve tried to grasp most thoroughly of any to have come out of the 416. I live about twice the distance from the site you do, but used to live much closer and know many people in the immediate area.

    My only option for staying properly ‘up’ on stuff there was been the web (okay, the Victoria News did actually have the propane explosion as its front page headline one day) and I think of the various things I read, this one is the most well put together. It’s interesting visually and as a story, but also covers different perspectives on the big questions while skipping all the little ones that people are chattering at each other about (or yelling at each other to shut up about, apparently). It also gets straight to the point in terms of what individuals should do in the wake of this without getting hung up on what this group or that one should’VE done (important, but save it for the judge, y’know?).

    Its great how well thought out and pulled together the material is underneath the illustrations. You’ve got the ‘dry’ content and the ‘wet’ eyecandy of blogging layered and woven together very nicely!

    Your daughter’s response really reframed the term “risk management” for me, from meaning consideration of the social impact of certain behaviour to one of the more grotesque areas of reductionist economics. Not to mean that it changed my idea of the whole field but in future the phrase will definitely bring that brutal side to my mind too.

  • I love your work… You are an inspiration!

  • Mary Stevenson says:

    Wow! I’m so glad I decided to check for a new visual essay… Brilliantly descriptive and powerful!! We too heard the weird thunder – I thought it was freaky thunder and David thought raccoons were trying to get into our garage. We were very shocked and sorry to discover what had really happened. It makes what is happening now with the Maple Leaf Meat crisis seem even more disturbing because it could have been prevented.

    Congrats on another wonderful essay!

  • IowaBiz says:

    What? Me? Worry?…

    Having a pre-schooler in the house is a continual lesson in risk management. Try as I might to keep her from harm, the prevailing question in our house is not WHETHER we will go to the emergency room, but WHEN…

  • What? Me? Worry?

    Franke goes on to do a brilliant risk analysis. She provides a model for every project manager. Too often, egos, ignorance and schedules get in the way of really diving down into the details of what can go wrong….

  • Blogged: Cool green artist blog

    Thank you to Nancy for sending me this great link! This blog is created by Franke James, an artist, photographer and writer whose artistic mission is to do something green and document it.

    The latest My Green Conscience blog entry is called 12,000 Sitting Ducks. James does her documentation by drawing ala comic books sort of. So the blog does not have much writing but a lot of art and about very important topics. It’s hard to explain, just go check it out by clicking here. It is terrific!

  • I keep on reading your pages, one by one.

    I really really love your work Franke. Keep up the good work ! :)

  • Caitlin says:

    Great essay! As I started to think about how I would go about studying my neighborhood (Seattle) to identify risks, I realized I had no idea where to start. This seems like something that a neighborhood/city wiki would come in handy for, but I have no idea if something like that even exists. Thoughts?

  • Molly says:

    Great essay. Though the first place to look to for blame is personal consumption. Does your neighbourhood use the propane from that plant? Your list of four things that can go wrong seems to imply that the plant should never be located in proximity to the residences. Where then? With what impact on that other location?

    I think an important part of being “green” is to take into consideration the waste/risk/cost of each person’s consumption and locate it as close to home as possible. It’s one of the best ways to remind people to consume less.

    It is true that safety from the plant should be monitored and the community warned of the risks. An active community is the insurance against short-view politicians.

  • Erin says:

    I live near the TMI (Three Mile Island) nuclear power plant. I can see it from my backyard, the four big towers. On March 28, 1979, one of the reactors had a partial meltdown and released radioactive gases. We now have all sorts of protective measures and evacuation plans for if something ever happens again. I really don’t think it’ll help much though; if an explosion occurred, miles around the area would be completely leveled. It really isn’t the best place for a nuclear power plant, but it’s become part of everyday life now.

  • Suvas says:


    WOW!!! I live 4 Km away from that place too! And luckily I didn’t take it as just another thunderstorm. In fact, the first sound that I heard, and the shockwave that I felt, I thought my building just collapsed, and I am going to die anytime with the ceiling falling on me. And I put my hands on my face for 5 seconds. Fortunately, it was just my imagination. But I jumped off my bed and went outside in my balcony, and what do I SEE! O.O This massive ball of fire, exactly like the one in videos and pictures. But my first impression of it was that its a fire in some firecrackers storage, that they might have kept for Canada Day’s celebration and all other celebrations in the Downsview park. (Time for us to explore where they store those firecrackers.. :|) It was just too scary, and I stood there for half an hour just staring at the explosion, and thinking all sorts of weird thoughts, about life, and the uncertainty of it. Went to bed, couldn’t sleep. The next morning I heard the news stories, and how people are being evacuated to York U, and the fire was growing! :s
    Went to my part-time work at Zellers, and our management donated water, towels, and other stuff for people in YorkU. A rather scarier part was when my manager asked me to call my home, and ask my parents if they have been told to evacuate to YorkU as well, because the news was that the fire could spread more unexpectedly. Thank God it wasn’t true. But the whole experience for sure was scary, and made me think how well can we trust where we are, and unto what extent are OTHER people responsible for OUR and our LOVED ONES’ lives? Is there anything we can do? And your post surely answered some of my questions.

    -Suvas Patel

    P.S. I like the way you tell your stories… we could be good friends. ;)

  • Cody says:

    your essays are cool

  • correy says:

    you should make an essay on how taking garbages out of schools doesnt save the planet

  • Addy says:

    Yes i have to agree with Cody,you are an inspiration to me, my friends, and the kids in our school. especially the teachers… Thanks for putting the word out there like everyone does with co2 in our atmosphere! ;)

  • Kyle says:

    I agree with Cody because i think your essays are spectacular. I just wish every one thought like you, then the planet would improve and not be destroyed by industries. P.S. your writing style is amazing.

  • […] August 2008, I created a story about a propane depot explosion that happened in Toronto. Japan’s crisis is exponentially larger, yet just like in Toronto […]

  • Mike Long says:

    Beautifully done, Franke. It really makes one think… It is unhappy that it requires a catastrophic occasion to finally make people think about their security.

  • […] taken on climate change (Ending the Climate War), an explosion in a nearby propane plant (12,000 Sitting Ducks), and Canada’s sorry environmental record (Fat Cat Canada’s Giant Litter […]

  • Thanks for the great essay Franke. We got more of this at present. Boston explosion and the fertilizer plant explosion in Waco are examples. Not done by the government but still a product of a lame security.

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