The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority waited almost a month after first discovering the hand-dug tunnel near York University before alerting authorities, the Star has learned.
Email records obtained through freedom of information requests show how public officials were initially blasé about the discovery — thinking it was a shelter built by a homeless person — but grew alarmed once the extent of the sophisticated engineering was discovered.
Only then were police, fire and two city departments called to the scene, where confusion reigned over what exactly had been found and who should take charge.
The public might never have known about the tunnel had it not been leaked to the press five weeks later, and it would take almost three months before anyone could figure out whether the tunnel was on TRCA or city land.
Tunnel first found
The wooded area near the Rexall Centre at York University where the tunnel was found. (Randy Risling/Toronto Star)
On Dec. 19 last year, TRCA compliance officer Michael Brestansky was walking through the wooded area near the Rexall Centre at Steeles Ave. W and Jane St., when he saw a pile of dirt and a hole in a hillside.
“Photos were taken and I did not approach. I observed from the opposite side of the creek,” wrote Brestansky in a report emailed to superiors. “I discussed my findings with (manager) Brian Moyle and we decided to investigate further once we returned from the Christmas holidays.”
TRCA returns to investigate
In this photo released under freedom of information laws, Toronto Regional Conservation Authority employees explore a pit found in the ravine near the Rexall Centre, a month after first spotting it. (TRCA photo)
It wasn’t until Jan. 14 of this year that Brestansky returned and, noticing a cat coming out of the hole, he called two other TRCA employees for backup before approaching to investigate.
“Upon arriving at the site we did not see any footprints in the snow around the fill or dugout. Brian Moyle approached with caution and identified himself as TRCA staff,” Brestansky wrote. “A plastic garbage bin was blocking the entrance. Brian moved the bin to look inside. There was nobody inside but we did discover a generator, gas cans, saw, compressor and a few other items.”
The three men fanned out and discovered a fire pit a short way up the slope. Under some logs there was fabric and, under that, a piece of plywood covered with dirt.
“Once we removed the lid we noticed a large excavated hole with a ladder leading down to the bottom. Photos were taken. We also noticed a power core, hose and a tunnel with a door. We closed the hatch and decided to notify Toronto Police,” wrote Brestansky.
The cavalry is called in
Toronto Regional Conservation Authority employees called in the fire department after they found a tunnel equipped with lights and a gasoline powered sump pump hidden underneath a fire pit in a ravine near the Rexall Centre. (TRCA photo)
Two hours later, with three police officers on site, everyone seemed flummoxed by the find and was unwilling to take charge of the situation.
“The officers took a look and we (were) unsure of what we had discovered. The officers decided to contact Toronto Fire to investigate the confined space,” Brestansky wrote.
But when Toronto Fire Services arrived, they wouldn’t go into the hole due to fears it might collapse. The city works department was called and asked to bring a camera to send down the hole, but when they arrived, they had forgotten the technology.
“Toronto Fire made the decision to pump water out of the bottom of the hole and to lower a firefighter inside to have a peek. Once inside it was discovered that there was an approximately 30-foot tunnel that appeared to T at the end with possible other rooms,” Brestansky wrote. “Toronto Police made the decision to cover the entrance for the night.”
A Toronto Police photo released on Feb. 24 of the so-called mystery tunnel site dug near this year's Pan American Games venues. (Supplied photo)
In the weeks that followed, police conducted their investigation, requesting copies of video from surveillance cameras in the area and sending out a questionnaire to all TRCA employees.
The seven-question survey asked, among other things, whether anyone had seen vehicles or people with wheelbarrows or gas cans in the area around the Rexall Centre, if they had heard power tools being used or whether anyone had been seen removing wood or aluminum from the stadium.
Though it’s not clear exactly when, during this period, the tunnel was filled in.
The media leak
Just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 23, the CBC posts a story on its website reporting that “a large and sophisticated tunnel was dug” near a future Pan Am Games venue. (Screengrab)
The email correspondence on the subject goes quiet for 10 days, until Feb. 23, when a CBC producer emailed to ask for comment to include in a report being aired that evening about “a discovery.” At that point, TRCA staff seemed unaware of the bunker and asked management for information.
Just after 5 p.m., the CBC posted a story on its website, reporting that “a large and sophisticated tunnel was dug” near a future Pan Am Games venue, and a deluge of questions about suspected terrorism soon arrived from competing media.
Toronto Police announced a press conference for the next morning, stoking the speculation about security threats.
Rick Sikorski, associate director for marketing, made the call that because police were involved, the TRCA wouldn’t comment. But the requests kept pouring in as the story went viral.
Reassessing media strategy
After the first day’s articles all included no comment from the TRCA, its senior director, Carolyn Woodland, wrote to lament the lost marketing opportunity.
“Let’s just make sure that instead of totally ‘deflecting’ the issue to the police that we sound like we are doing our due diligence in patrolling our lands,” she wrote. “Let’s get a bit of credit in this scenario.”
At a press conference the morning of Feb. 24, police announced the tunnel investigation was a criminal matter, quelling some speculation about terrorism. But they said they were unsure of the tunnel’s purpose and asked the public for assistance.
Whose land is it?
In this map released under freedom of information laws, Toronto Regional Conservation Authority pinpoints a 10-metre-long tunnel hidden underneath a fire pit in a ravine near the Rexall Centre. (TRCA photo)
The story made it to the U.S. and soon the New York Times and NBC were making inquiries. The TRCA was forced to admit it couldn’t confirm who owns the land the tunnel was on.
Internal emails suggested that it was TRCA land, but no one was 100 per cent sure.
“Can we get confirmation?” wrote Sikorski in an email to colleagues on Feb 24. “It seems like that is one question we should be able to answer.”
Eventually, without a definite answer, he was forced to tell the New York Times: “It’s likely on our property, but because it’s in a wooded area with no property lines we cannot confirm absolutely without conducting a survey.”
The digger is found
Elton McDonald, a 22-year-old construction worker, admits to having dug the tunnel on March 5.Elton McDonald, a 22-year-old construction worker, admits to having dug the tunnel on March 5. (GoFundMe)
The tunnel stayed in the headlines for several days before police announced they had found the culprits.
On March 5, in an interview with the Toronto Sun, 22-year-old construction worker Elton McDonald admitted to having dug the tunnel.
As media scrambled to ask why the city didn’t press trespassing charges, the TRCA was finally able to confirm that the tunnel was indeed on TRCA land and not a city road right-of-way.
The closest thing to a moral of the story can be found buried in the correspondence between TRCA employees.
“I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank Michael for his diligence,” wrote Moyle the day after police were called in. “We’ll never look at a pile of dirt the same way again.”