One survivor likened the destruction to a scene from war-torn Beirut. Another said he "thought it was the end of the Earth." Across central Ontario last Friday a series of howling, churning tornadoes ripped through peaceful farming towns and garden subdivisions, flattening homes, uprooting trees and wiping out businesses along a crooked 100-km path. At least 12 people died, dozens more were injured, and more than 400 homes were destroyed or damaged in the storm, which also cut through the midwestern and northeastern United States before buffeting eastern Ontario and Quebec. In Barrie, Ont. (population 45,000), scene of some of the worst devastation, residents stood numbed by fear as a whirling, funnel-shaped cloud of thick, black dust dived from the skies and pounded a seven-block area into sticks and rubble. “I just screamed, ‘Everybody downstairs’,” said Barrie resident Mary Jane White, whose blouse still bore bloodstains from head injuries suffered by one of her three children. “We all knelt down and prayed and we just screamed to God.”
Whipped up by a line of severe thunderstorms that also produced golfball-sized hail and torrential rain, the tornadoes caught everyone by surprise. In Barrie, 100 km north of Toronto, a small child—one of four children killed in the storm—was apparently thrown off his bicycle by a twister and beheaded when he struck a hydro pole. In nearby Tottenham a 59-year-old widow was killed when gale force winds tore her log-cabin home from its foundations and scattered the contents across neighboring fields. And in the town of Grand Valley, public health nurse Robin Berger was trapped between two glass doors when the community medical centre caved in. The town’s only local doctor, Donald Mulder, later removed a large wedge of glass from her neck, amazed that her injuries were not more serious.
The U.S. death toll was even higher. At least 56 people were killed and another 200 were injured in tornadoes that spun through western and central Pennsylvania, virtually destroying whole towns and tearing down power and telephone lines to hundreds of houses. In Ohio authorities said that the storm claimed at least 16 lives. “There’s nothing standing,” said Betty Pomp, surveying the damage in her home town of Niles. “The people are walking around in circles.”
The same unstable weather system also caused havoc in the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario’s prime fruit-growing region. Hail and accompanying high winds smashed windows and destroyed field crops, but authorities said it was too early to assess the damage. The storms hit only one night after an intense hailstorm smashed greenhouses and flattened vegetable crops in Essex County in southwestern Ontario, inflicting losses of about $15 million on 120 growers. The county produces about 75 per cent of the greenhouse vegetables —including tomatoes, cabbage and cauliflower-grown in Canada. Still, federal agriculture officials said consumers would likely be spared any price increases because ample supplies of imported vegetables are available.
The storms produced countless tragedies, but there were miraculous escapes as well. The public library in Grand Valley collapsed, trapping half a dozen women and small children under tons of brick. But 50 area residents immediately pitched in to rescue them, and after 40 minutes of digging all were saved. Said Ida Marcotte, who helped rescue four-year-old Catherine Moore: “It’s amazing. We found her under all that rubble and she just walked out.”
Meanwhile, a blind couple whose home in Orangeville was demolished also narrowly escaped death. Fred and Devon Raymond were about to sit down for supper when they heard “a roar and a roar.” Suddenly, their roof was torn off and a wall collapsed on top of them, but, remarkably, Mrs. Raymond suffered only a scratched elbow. “Then our neighbor came in,” the blind woman later recalled. “His voice was music to our ears.”
Within hours of the storm Ontario Premier Frank Miller announced that areas hit by the twisters would be eligible for immediate disaster relief. But even with financial aid, it will be a long time before the residents of central Ontario forget last week’s killing storm.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.