In the Eye of a Tornado – 31 July 1987

Posted by on Jul 31, 2012 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

THE FIRST PERSON to identify the cloud as a tornado was a 44-year-old Leduc pharmacist named Tom Taylor. It was the Friday afternoon of the August 1 long weekend and Taylor was at home on his acreage,  three kilometres northeast of Leduc, getting ready to work the four to midnight shift at NuWay Drugs. The weather in the Edmonton region had been exceptionally hot and muggy during the previous week, with temperatures soaring above thirty degrees Celsius during the day and thunderstorms exploding over the area at night. Taylor fed his Labrador retriever, Snooker, at 2:30 pm and looked up at the darkening sky. “Looks like the storm could be blowing in early today,” he thought. He went inside, fixed himself a sandwich for supper, and doffed his clothes to take a bath. As he lowered himself into the tub, he could hear rain and hailstones hitting the metal chimney, and thunder that got louder with every clap. He quickly jumped out of the tub, thinking it might not be the safest place to be in a thunderstorm.

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. From his second-floor window Taylor could see a large cloud gathering to the south over Leduc and a smaller cloud, resembling a wasp’s nest, hanging below it. The rope-shaped tail of the nest corkscrewed toward the ground, touched down briefly, sucked up debris, and exploded. “It was incredible,” Taylor told a friend afterwards. “It went from a dormant state to a full-blown tornado and it didn’t take one second. It was like turning on a switch.”

At five minutes to three, Taylor called Environment Canada’s weather office at the Edmonton International Airport. He reached meteorologist Garry Atchison, head of the office’s “severe weather” team. “I’ve just seen a funnel,” said Taylor, “and it touched the ground.” Atchison had been tracking the storm on radar as it travelled north from Red Deer and had issued periodic weather advisories about hail, lightning and damaging winds. Now he knew he had been watching something more serious. “I better get a tornado warning out,” he said. He dispatched the message to local radio and television stations at 3:07 pm By then the tornado had embarked along a 40-kilometre path of destruction that would result in twenty-seven deaths, hundreds of injuries, more than one thousand homeless, and $330 million in property damage.

Taylor stood on his garage roof and watched the tornado for another twenty minutes as it swung northward toward Beaumont, a farming community just south of Edmonton. The storm continued on toward the southeast Edmonton subdivision of Mill Woods, beyond which Taylor could see the flare stacks of Refinery Row and the skyscrapers of Edmonton’s downtown. He snapped a few photographs and then drove into Leduc to start his shift. The pharmacy cashier didn’t believe him when he told her he had just seen a tornado.

MAJOR LOSS OF LIFE

The tornado sucked up cattle and swept them to their deaths as it passed through Beaumont. In Mill Woods it ripped roofs of houses and shredded fences. It unleashed its full force when it reached the industrial district located between Edmonton and the suburban municipality of Sherwood Park, eight kilometres to the east. It blew cars and tractor-trailers into the air, picked up oil storage tanks and bounced them like beach balls, reduced buildings to kindling, and killed several people.

The biggest single loss of life—14 deaths—occurred when the tornado hit the Evergreen Mobile Home Park, a 720-residence development surrounded by farmers’ fields and nurseries in the city’s northeastern corner. The park’s seventeen hundred inhabitants had no basements in which to hide and not enough warning to get out of the storm’s path.

Evergreen resident Marin Athanasopoulos, a dark-haired, 30-year-old mother of four, was at home with her children, writing a letter to her mother-in-law in Ontario, when the tornado hit. Her two oldest boys, eleven-year-old Robert and five-year-old George were playing in the front yard while two-year-old Joseph and baby Kosta, ten months old, were in the house sleeping. At 3:40 pm the power in the park went off. “Here we go again, the power is always going off in this place,” Marin said to herself. “Now we can’t eat the supper in the oven, so we’ll just have to have a picnic. We’ll spread a blanket on the living room floor and have some fun.” She looked out the living-room window and saw big dark clouds racing across the sky. “Check this out,” she said to Robert as he and George came in from the yard. “I’ve never seen clouds moving that fast before.”

Down the street, the wind plucked a roof from a house and tossed it into the air. Marin watched it fly and then ran outside to put away the children’s toys. The wind flung her against the gate and carried away the toys. She shut the door of the garden shed just as its roof blew off. She had asked her husband to fix the roof because she knew it was coming loose, and clearly he hadn’t done it properly. She thought of the choice words she would use to reprimand him when he got home from work. He worked as a cook at Capital Pizza and was due home at 6:30 pm.

The baby, Kosta, was awake and crying in his crib as she went back into the house. She lifted him up, carried him into the living room, and sat with him watching the storm. The eaves trough extended four feet out from the roof, and she could see it shaking and starting to bend. “Oh, no,” she said. “We should have cut that thing off. It’s going to hit our car.” The car, normally driven by her husband, had recently received a new paint job. He had taken her old car to work so that the newly painted car wouldn’t get dented or scratched. She yelled at Robert to grab her car keys from the kitchen. She could hear windows starting to break throughout the house. The sound of the storm was so loud that she felt like she was standing under the engine of a jet airplane. She cradled the baby in her arms and ran down the hallway toward the wing that had been added to their trailer home. Two-year-old Joseph was in the wing, lying in a bunk bed. While she ran she felt the house bouncing up and down like popcorn in a machine. Behind her, the living room furniture was being sucked out one window while someone else’s furniture was coming in through another. Wooden two by fours were coming through the walls. The park outside was shrouded in darkness.

Robert and George ran behind her. Robert was shouting, “Here’s the keys. Here’s the keys.” Marin stopped, turned, took the car keys from Robert, put them on top of the freezer, and handed the baby to Robert. “You stay there while I check on Joseph,” she said.  She carried on alone into the back wing and snatched up the two-year-old from his bed. As they came out through the doorway the wing collapsed behind them. Marin would learn later that the trailer home next door had landed on top of the wing. At that point her home briefly stopped bouncing. “What is it? What is it?” asked Robert. Marin decided she knew what it was because she had seen this scene in The Wizard of Oz. “It’s a tornado,” she said quietly.

STAYING SAFE IN A TORNADO

She remembered what her uncle in Michigan had said to her about staying safe in a tornado: “You go to the basement or you stand in a doorway.” She didn’t have a basement, so she stood in her bedroom doorway hugging her children close. Through the window they could see a trailer home shooting up into the air and blowing apart. Their house had started bouncing again. Marin started praying. “Please God, don’t leave some of my babies to wake up in this mess and find the rest of us dead,” she said. “Don’t do that to my babies. If this is the end, make it the end for all of us.”

The house finally stopped bouncing and the roaring outside stopped. It had seemed like an eternity but it had taken just ten minutes for the tornado to churn through the park. A deathly silence blanketed the park. The children started to cry. Marin checked each one of them for possible injuries and then started clawing through the rubble. “My neighbours will be on the other side digging, because I’ve seen this on TV,” she thought. “You dig, they dig, and then you meet in the middle.”

When she got through the rubble, there were no neighbours to meet her on the other side. All she could see was more rubble and what looked like human figures growing out of the piles of garbage. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she thought. “Maybe we’ve been bombed.” “But why would they bomb us? It doesn’t make sense; why would they bomb Evergreen?”  Then she remembered that that the park had been hit by a tornado.

Her uncle had told her that tornadoes could sometimes come in sequence. “That twister can come back,” she thought, momentarily panic-stricken. “I’ve got to get my kids out of here.” But they were in summer clothes with bare feet. She couldn’t have them walking through the garbage and the rubble like that. She took the children back through the ruins of her house to look for coats and shoes. She could feel a scream emanating from deep inside her, but she held it in check because she didn’t want the children to know she was afraid. “I can’t be upset,” she thought. “I have to act normal.” She dressed the children in coats and shoes and then went back outside into the pouring rain.

DEATH AND DESTRUCTION

A mountain of twisted metal, drywall, paper, glass and wooden debris blocked the approach to the strip mall, near the entrance to the park. As Marin came close to it she realized it was all that remained of the home where her babysitter, Edith, had lived. Did Edith make it out safely? That’s when Marin lost control. She uttered a long and anguished scream. She held son Joseph in her left arm and started clawing through the rubble with her right hand. “I’ve got to find my babysitter,” she shrieked. A man gently pushed her away from the debris. “You can’t help,” he said. “You need to look after your children.” Marin would learn later that Edith was safe,

She entered the Evergreen Supermarket, and looked for a roll of paper towel to wipe the rain from her eyeglasses. There was nobody behind the counter. “He won’t mind if I take some towel,” she thought. “I’ll pay him later.” She sat the two youngest children on the counter and went to fetch the towel. The older children screamed at her to come back. They pointed to a man lying on the floor with a two by four impaling his chest. Marin grabbed the children and ran from the store.

DOWNTOWN EDMONTON ESCAPES

When they arrived at the park entrance, Marin spotted an Edmonton police constable sitting in a cruiser. She walked up to him and said, “My name is Marin Athanasopoulos, and these are my four children, Robert, George, Joseph and Kosta. We lived in number thirty-four. Where do we register?”

The officer looked perplexed. “Register?” he said.

“Yes, we’re survivors in a disaster,” said Marin, repeating her name and the names of her children. “We need to register that we’re safe. My husband will be looking for us.”

She asked the policeman if the tornado had hit downtown Edmonton. “No,” he replied. “The city’s fine.”

“Then my husband will be coming for us,” said Marin. “We’ll be on the bus. Would you please tell him that that’s where we are.” She steered the children toward the waiting Edmonton Transit bus. She sat with the children at the back of the bus, where she thought they would be safe if the tornado came back.

Through the window of the bus she saw a man in a yellow raincoat carrying a bleeding and bruised baby. Marin recognized the week-old infant as the daughter of a sixteen-year-old girl who had done some babysitting for her. Marin ran to the front door of the bus.

“You should give me that baby, I know her mother,” she said to the man. The baby was soaked from the rain, and clad only in a diaper and T-shirt.

“You’ll have to keep her nasal passages clear,” he said. “I had to clear her passages twice already.”

The baby gurgled, rolled back her eyes, and stopped breathing just as Marin took her aboard the bus. Panic-stricken and unsure as to how she should clear the baby’s passages, Marin poked a finger down her throat. The baby coughed, vomited, and started breathing again. Relieved but still concerned that the baby might die, Marin carried her away from the bus and handed her to the policeman, a constable named Bill Clark.

“What’s her name?” asked Clark.

“I can’t remember,” replied Marin.

“That’s all right,” said Clark. He took a yellow survival blanket from his trunk and wrapped the baby in it. The baby was struggling to breathe and seemed to be in pain.

Clark radioed for an ambulance. “We don’t have any,” said the dispatcher. “They’re all tied up.” Clark decided to perform ambulance duty himself. He put the baby in his lap and turned the key in the ignition. He told Marin he would take the baby to the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Clark drove toward the hospital at top speed, weaving through stalled traffic like a rally driver and bouncing over grass medians. The trip seemed to take forever. Every road in northeast Edmonton was littered with downed trees and power lines. Every underpass was flooded. Clark held the steering wheel with one hand and gently pulled on the baby’s fingers and toes with the other until the cruiser reached the hospital. If the baby winced, he knew she was still alive. The baby survived. Fourteen at Evergreen did not.

BUS TO ALBERTA HOSPITAL

The bus took Marin and her children and the other tornado refugees to nearby Alberta Hospital, a psychiatric facility. Marin had left the trailer park without her purse so she asked a nurse to give her a quarter to phone her husband. It was now dinnertime and the restaurant was busy. A waitress answered the phone and then sent word back to the kitchen that Marin’s husband, Denis, should take the call. He was not happy to be pulled away from the kitchen during the busiest period of his working day and, like many Edmontonians, was unaware yet that a tornado had struck the city. Marin assured him that she and the children were safe, asked him to phone her parents, and said she would meet him at the restaurant when the hospital staff cleared them for release.

Denis didn’t wait for Marin and the children to get there. When he finished his shift he jumped in his car and arrived at the hospital just as someone was shouting that another tornado was about to hit. Scared and screaming, the survivors and hospital staff ran downstairs into the tunnels that connected different parts of the hospital. They cowered there for half an hour until a false alarm was declared.

RETURNING TO EVERGREEN

When Marin was finally released from the hospital she told Denis that she needed to go back to Evergreen to fetch her purse and pick up diapers and formula for the baby. They had to go via a back road because police and emergency vehicles blocked the front entrance. Marin stared sadly at her broken home. It was still standing, with someone else’s trailer piled on top of what had been the children’s bedroom. Worried about looters, she stuffed as many valuables as he could into a sleeping bag, along with the diapers, clothing and bottles.

They stayed the night at a friend’s house and returned to Evergreen the following day to retrieve some more of their belongings. A woman from Alberta Victim Services accompanied them to the home, and told Marin what items she should look for: “Do you know where your marriage licence is? Your birth certificate? Jewelry?” Marin didn’t know where any of those things were. But in the bathroom cupboard she knew she had some toilet paper that she had bought on sale for twenty cents a roll. “If I don’t get my toilet paper, I didn’t get a good sale,” said Marin. “And if I don’t get the margarine from my freezer, that won’t have been a good sale either.” The woman assured her that the toilet paper and the margarine would be put to good use. “You should look for the things that have a greater meaning for you; the things that will help you put your life back together.”

Marin and her family remained homeless for the next two months. The Red Cross put them up in a hotel for a couple of weeks, and their insurance paid for an apartment rental while they waited to move back to Evergreen. A friend told her she should use the insurance money and provincial government compensation to buy a house in Edmonton, but Marin was determined to move back.

“I live in Evergreen for a reason,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, quiet, country-living, safe neighbourhood to raise my children. That’s why I moved there and no windstorm is going to scare me away. I’m going right back there. I’m not going to be scared away and made to live in the city. I don’t like the city. I like where I live.” She told her children that God had protected them from the tornado because they had a Palm Sunday wreath on their front door and a statue of the Last Supper in the living room.

It would be 15 years before the nightmares would go away, 15 years before Marin could listen to thunder without panicking, 15 years before she could resist the urge to flee whenever a storm approached Evergreen. But for now she had a role to play, advocating for tornado victims without insurance, lobbying government officials, speaking to the media, attending memorial services, holding hands, comforting those who lost loved ones, participating in support group sessions, and telling people over and over again that there is a rainbow at the end of every storm.

It was the least she could do.

[First published in Boondoggles, Bonanzas and Other Alberta Stories (Fifth House, 2003)]

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Copyright 2012 Brian Brennan - Author

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