Memoir and Reflections, Special Occasions, Throw-back Thursday

Tornado: Part One, Whirlwind

For years after it happened my grandma would appear visibly shaken during any summer storm. When the sky would start to darken it was clear she couldn’t help flashing back to the day her world was turned up-side-down.

She was alone in the house on the evening of August 7th, 1979 while my grandfather and my uncle (a teenager at the time) were out in the barn.

My grandparents were simple people, a hard-working dairy farmer and his wife. Their farm was everything to them and a visible sign of all they had built together over the previous thirty years.

***

Woodstock – her electric clock stopped at twenty minutes before seven.
About five minutes after the power failure, the tornado struck.

“It was just terrible,”, Ruby Witzel said Wednesday, fighting back the tears.
“It was a horrible experience – you just can’t express it in words,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
She stood outside her rural home near Hickson, huddled in a red and black plaid jacket, her salt and pepper hair drawn back.

wpid-unknown-2014-08-7-00-42.jpg

***

My parents were newly-weds during the summer of 79 and had been married just under two months, barely settled into the home they had purchased on the other side of the town of Woodstock. It was a big enough move for them both, not being overly familiar with that area, away from the farm my mother grew up on. My father had been a city kid all his life.

My grandparents are no longer here to be included in this (although I am certain they would have done gladly). They loved to tell their story and I heard it several times growing up, but now I am left with only old newspaper articles from immediately afterward.

I asked my parents to retell their own sides of that day. My mom was at home and waiting for my dad to come home from work. She had no idea anything happened until after the havoc that spread through the area.

***

When did you first know anything was wrong? I got a phone call. The afternoon was really hot and it was extremely still.

I’m not even sure who it was that called me and said that the tornado had gone through mom and dads and destroyed the farm.
I called to see if dad had already left to tell him to come home right away and they said their electricity was out and they couldn’t use their PA system to page him, but they kind of thought he had already left, but they weren’t sure. So I just waited and I waited and I waited and he didn’t show up so after waiting so long I hopped in our car and I thought I’ll drive to Woolco and see if I can find him
So I get on the 401 and it is completely stopped with traffic and all backed up. I looked at my gas tank it was almost empty. I waited for a little while and my gas tank started going down so I thought what am I gonna do so I turned around and went the opposite way and got back off and tried to go into town but it was completely closed off. There were trees all over the road and wires down.
I had no idea where he was or what was going on. I had no idea where he was for at least two hours probably. He wasn’t coming home and nobody at work saw him. I was in tears driving back to our house not knowing, how to get anywhere. Scared all by myself.

***

What about you Dad. What first tipped you off to something not right? The power went out in the store. I was done work at six and I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to stick around in case they wanted me to do some more work. I went outside and, since my parents went to Europe, I had my dad’s car, a big old Chrysler. I looked north of the mall…I thought holy smokes they’re getting a real bad storm out that way. Down south looked fine, at least what I thought.

***

“It was like a white cloud whirling around. I couldn’t see anything else,” Mrs. Witzel recalled with tears in her eyes.
“I quickly ran down to the cellar and the garage was already blowing away.”

“The wind was really blowing against the cellar door.” she said.
“I could hardly push it open,” she said, leaning against the battered wreck of her son’s new Thunderbird parked in what was once the garage.

(My mother’s two older brothers were both married and had children. My twin cousins were born only weeks before, prematurely. It had been a busy summer of weddings and births and now this had happened. It was simple proof of how my family always pulled together for each other, in good times and in bad.)

“They were in the milkhouse but it’s gone now,” Mrs. Witzel said, motioning to the east where a mound of hay and straw showed where the large wooden barn had been the day before.
“Just after they were inside the silo came down on top of the milkhouse,” Mrs Witzel said.
You can see that God really spared our lives – just by the margin that we escaped,” she said.

(This only served to cement my grandmother’s faith in God. She had come so close to losing more than property that August evening.)

***

So what did you do next? I got in the car and started driving. I got on the 401 and started driving toward home. It was getting darker and it was getting windier. Basically I got close to the cut-off and had the windows up, air on so it was nice and cool inside. I guess I wasn’t really paying attention and all of a sudden it got really windy and then it got dark and I saw something was going on ahead of me so I stopped. There were no other cars that I could see. I suddenly drove into this thing and before I knew it I was all alone. I still had it in drive but I had my foot on the break. Then it was getting worse and worse. I was getting worried and didn’t know what to do.

I just thought: I’m probably going to die. What’s going on here? It seemed like a long time it was doing this. Please stop, I thought I felt the car move, but it didn’t shift too much. I think it was more the pelting of stuff.; I was getting the debris. I didn’t get the tornado; it had already past. It was the swirl of bricks and trees and pieces of buildings.
If it was going on you’d think the car would have been moved, if it was the real thing I probably would have died. It had already gone across the 401 That’s what I believe happened. I didn’t drive into it and it hit me. I was in shock I guess. I didn’t realize what it was until later. Just married and am I going to die and never see my baby? You think the worst. When I laid down I was scared and thought I was going to die. It happened so fast but seemed like it was a long time.

I sat up. I sat for a bit, never getting out of the car, in a state of shock.
A car drove by on my ride hand side. They never stopped to help me, they were in shock too, I recall a kid looking out at me, shocked himself, I looked at him and he looked at me. That car drove slowly past.

***

The Woodstock tornado was actually three tornadoes spawned by the same storm. Two were powerful F4 twisters, with wind speeds of up to 400 kilometres and funnels two kilometres wide. The first one struck southeast of Stratford, Ont., at 6:18 p.m., carving up a path 33 kilometres long before it ended near the town of Bright.

A second, larger tornado touched down northwest of Woodstock at 6:52 p.m. It crossed Highway 401 and struck the city’s south end, cutting a swath 89 kilometres long before crossing Lake Erie and ending in New York State. A third, weaker twister struck south of Woodstock. Two people died in the tornadoes, 130 were injured and a thousand were left homeless.

***

When did you realize it was over and you were alright? I can’t tell you how long before it all died down and I sat up. Shortly after somebody from another car came running up to me and asked if I was okay. He asked me if I was hurt and I didn’t think so. He looked at me and I looked at myself. I didn’t see any cuts. He asked me if I could walk and he helped me out of my car and took me over to his. The men in the car said they were going to go back and see if the guy in another vehicle was alright.

They brought the truck driver and it looked like he was bleeding worse than I was.
They were taking him to hospital and they asked if I needed to go and I said I didn’t think I did.
They got off at the off ramp, next to the OPP station. They didn’t know what to do so they left me there and took the other man to the hospital.

At the station they were just getting lots of reports of what was happening around the county. They said something about up north area. It’s a big area, I thought, so who knows. At the police station I sat and listened, they were busy. “Yes we know there’s a tornado.” I heard them calling in off duty officers to come help. It got later and later so I used the phone. I thought I’d better call home. I called and got no answer. I think I called a few people, no answer. Any time I called I didn’t get an answer anywhere. I think I tried three or four different places.
Eventually I got a hold of your mother and she explained her parents farm had been hit, but everyone was okay, she said.
I was sitting there waiting and waiting and finally an officer said he was going out to a certain area, did I need a ride. I panicked. They were offering me a ride and so I thought I’d better take it.

He went to Oxford Centre first, which was also hit. There was a bunch of damage, getting dark by then. I must have been at the station quite a long time. He had to take another route because of the traffic tie-ups all over. I saw some of the damage. At one point he got out and told me to stay in the car because there were power lines all over the place, not wanting me to get electrocuted.

***

OPP were guarding the entrances to Oxford Centre, a hamlet 2 km south-east of the city, to stop sightseers and looters.
All but three or four of the 30 homes were severely damaged —  The worst concentration of damage outside of Woodstock.

Woodstock wasn’t the only populated area affected. Several tiny communities including Oxford Centre, Vanessa and New Durham were wiped off the map. Damage was estimated at $100 million.

***

When did you finally make it home? Eventually he took me back to our place. I pull in and see her there with the neighbour. I explained the situation. Then I took my shirt off and she cleaned my back because there were a lot of shards that had gone down my shirt. I don’t remember it being sore at all. She told me about her family and I took a shower and went to bed.

***

So Mom what did you do next? I went back home and then I think I got a phone call from Dad saying that he was at the police station and he asked me to come and get him. I said I didn’t know if I could so I said I would go over and ask the neighbour.

I knew them just barely. Maybe I had met them once before or maybe I had never met them. Maybe that was the first time I met them. I went over and their teenaged daughter was sitting on the porch. I told her that there was a tornado and I didn’t know how to get to my family. She went in and told her parents and they didn’t believe her at first, until they came out and went: Oh really!

This all took a long time because it was a long way around and when we finally got to the police station they told me he wasn’t there.
So the neighbour took me back home and as we were coming over the hill by our place a police cruiser comes up from behind us with his lights flashing so we pulled over and let him pass and then he pulled into our driveway and let Dad out.
He had bits of glass in the side of his shirt and he had his story to tell.
by then it was almost getting dark.

***

Friends, neighbours and relatives rushed out Tues. night to help rescue trapped animals and personal effects. They were back again in force early Wed., sawing up broken trees, gathering up boards and twisted sheets of steel roofing scattered like confetti through the surrounding fields.

Hay, straw and surviving animals were loaded on to trucks and wagons and taken to those neighboring farms which escaped the crushing blow of the 200 km per hr winds.
****

What were you feeling by the end of all this, after Dad was home safe? I didn’t realize how bad it was I don’t think until we went out there the next morning. We said we would just come out the next morning, but we should have gone out already that night if I’d known how bad it was.
It was a long night. If I had to do it over again I would have gone out to the farm that night, but dad was exhausted. We were both tired by that point. I had just recently found out that I was pregnant so it was scary. I didn’t know what was going on with everybody.

***

At the Witzel farm, more than three dozen cars and trucks line the road.
As the men worked at sawing the huge spruce and weeping willow trees, women chatted or tried to comfort the shaken Mrs. Witzel.

***

Excerpts were taken from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, August 1979

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15 thoughts on “Tornado: Part One, Whirlwind

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by tornados but the thought of seeing one up close and personal terrifies me. When I got to the part of the story when your dad was driving I thought he was literally in the tornado (it wasn’t his time).

  2. Really interesting story. Great job putting it all together. Reading first hand personal accounts like this really create an understanding of what it can be like to be in a storm like that.

  3. Tornadoes are scary. I’ve never been close to one, but a tornado caused some damage to our farm buildings (we didn’t live on the farm) when I was about 12. Nothing like what you’ve described though. Glad your family wasn’t hurt.

  4. I was living with my Dad in Southern IL a few years ago when a big storm passed through. I had all my stuff ready to go into the cellar, but we figured we’d wait until we really HAD to go down there. We never did go down; the power flickered a bit but for the most part we stayed in the kitchen watching the weather. When the storm passed we went out to check out the damage… about 1/4 around our house was fine, but beyond that safety circle, every single cornfield was flattened, roofs were missing, trees were knocked over. It looked like a twister literally jumped over my dad’s farm. I am not a religious person but I believe somebody was protecting us that day.

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  6. Wow. Scary stuff. I was in Aurora when the one hit Barrie in the early eighties. That was close enough for me. I heard you had some activity yesterday not far away from you. Hope everything’s all right.

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  8. I can imagine the shock everyone was in. You just never know, in the blink of an eye, your world can be devastated in an instant. I know ours was. We were in an F5 tornado back in 1970. For years after, I would get so nervous whenever a storm came, and still have tornado nightmares sometimes now.

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