Horror and relief after storm

Saturday, August 22, 2009 – Globe and Mail
Anna Mehler Paperny

DURHAM, ONT. — For 30 minutes, in the twisted metal wreckage of a flimsy shelter, Rick Coveyduck tried to revive the prostrate 11-year-old-boy.

“It was so devastating, trying to bring that boy back to life,” Mr. Coveyduck, 57, told The Globe and Mail yesterday of his attempts, along with those of the boy’s mother, to perform CPR. “It was horrific. Devastating. Unexplainable.”

The young camper, identified last night by residents as Owen MacPherson, was the only direct casualty of a tornado that snaked a devastating path through Durham, Ont., tossing birds, people and cars like snow-globe confetti and leaving roofs ripped asunder, walls shredded and trees uprooted. It was one of an estimated four tornadoes to touch down across Southwestern Ontario on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes and buildings and leaving tens of thousands of people without power.

The 2,500-person town of Durham, a two-hour drive north of Toronto, was assessing the damage yesterday, and cleaning up the mess.

Owen was one of 25 children enrolled in a week-long nature camp at the Durham Conservation Area on the Saugeen River just east of the town. It was 3:45 p.m., and parents were gathering for pickup time when winds and rain came. They moved to shelter – a white awning stretched over aluminum supports on a concrete foundation.

Mr. Coveyduck was in his van outside the gatehouse of the adjoining campsite, where he brings a trailer each summer.

That’s when he saw the massive, dark funnel cloud approaching. Within seconds, he was in the centre of it.

The wind lifted his van off the ground, spun it around and set it down again.

“You can’t see anything but dust and debris,” he recounted. “I opened my door and heard a burst of screams.”

Steps away, dozens of hysterical children and adults were fleeing in all directions from the blasted shelter where one woman knelt over a small, motionless body.

“In the middle of this twisted piece of metal, I see this little boy lying on his face.”

Owen had been struck in the face with flying debris. Mr. Coveyduck and the boy’s mother tried to revive the child for nearly half an hour.

When paramedics arrived, one of them “put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry – the boy’s gone.’ [The mother] started bawling – she was just crying inconsolably.”

Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority communication manager Shannon Wood said the organization, which hosts more than 7,000 campers in programs throughout the year, often cancels activities because of extreme weather. But because the tornado hit so late in the day and so quickly, that wasn’t possible on Thursday.

Grey County Emergency Medical Services manager Mike Muir said other people suffered non-life-threatening musco-skeletal injuries and were released from hospital by yesterday morning. He said a coroner was investigating Owen’s death. Authorities have not confirmed the boy’s identity.

The conservation area was still closed late yesterday afternoon, and OPP officers stationed at its entrance said it wouldn’t reopen until after hydro workers fix fallen power lines.

Durham residents spent yesterday putting back together the pockets of the town devastated by the tornado. Siding flapped in the wind on rows of houses with blown-out windows and yards littered with insulation, shingles, scraps of all-terrain vehicles and broken umbrella tines. Smoke from brush fires permeated the air all afternoon as residents sawed and cleared away masses of debris from felled pines and cedars.

Keith Adams’s four-year-old golden retriever, Jewel, wisely chose to sit the storm out inside. Mr. Adams almost wasn’t so lucky.

“I didn’t even see it coming. The power was out. I came outside to look at the rain coming down. … I just had to fight to get back in the house. The wind kept pushing me back.”

Mr. Adams’s barn roof was lifted off and ripped to pieces that now lie tangled with the twisted branches of uprooted trees; the wind tore through his front door and turned his kitchen inside out; his windows are blown through and reduced to gaping shards.

Corey Harris was sitting at an intersection with his wife, Jamie Harris, and their six-month-old son, Robert, when they saw the funnel cloud coming at them, birds and branches swirling in the vortex.

“You could see clouds like streamers, going around in circles – they were all caught up in it.”

Rod Piercey saw the funnel cloud coming from the office of Thuro Web, a print shop owned by Metroland, which runs several community newspapers in the region. He dove through the door, but by then the building was in the grips of the tornado.

“The roof came off and it was daylight, and then 30 seconds later, it was all over,” he said. “It sounded like thunder, like a train, like bowling balls hitting each other.”

He credited the sturdy printing press for saving the lives of his half-dozen co-workers trapped in the press room. The equipment itself may not be so lucky.

“The machinery can usually take a pretty good beat, but…”

Now, the 29-year-old building is a crumpled hulk – wooden beams splintered like gunwales, aluminum siding crushed, and tin roof off and askew. Its neighbours in Durham’s industrial park fared little better: A nearby gym has been blown through completely. The Speke Klein furniture manufacturer next door is a shell.

Durham’s acting mayor, Dan Sullivan, said yesterday it’s too early to tell how much the damage will cost the city and its residents, although it’s likely in the tens of millions. At the end of the day yesterday, crews were still assessing the degree of destruction.

Environment Canada geologist Peter Kimbell said Thursday’s series of four tornadoes were the worst storm the province has seen since August, 2006, when 18 tornadoes touched down in southwestern Ontario.

By late afternoon yesterday, 4,800 households outside the Greater Toronto Area were still without power, but Hydro One spokeswoman Daniele Gauvin said power was to be restored by midnight.

Mr. Sullivan said the town has been overwhelmed with offers of help: City staff are struggling to sort through the offers of labour or supplies that have poured in.

“At this point, I think, we’re trying to make sure we plan our work. We’re trying to allow some of our staff to get a bit of a breather. … We’re moving forward.”

Crashing through Ontario

Path of storm

Sarnia, Duham, Craigleith, Gravenhust, Bracebridge

Durham and Vaughan / F2 rated tornado

Craigleith, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, North Bay, Newmarket / Suspected tornado

The storm system that ravaged a swath of Ontario Thursday began its unravelling in the Sarnia and Windsor areas and built momentum as it moved eastward. Just before 4 p.m., trees started shaking at Jon Eckhardt’s farm in the Town of Durham. “The trees started rocking and the top of the house blew off first,” he told The Sun Times newspaper in Owen Sound. “I saw the trees starting to fly down and ran for the basement and then when I came up, the barn was gone.” Buoyed by a warm and humid air mass sitting over the southwestern and south-central parts of the province, the storm blew eastward toward the Blue Mountain town of Craigleith, between Thornbury and Collingwood. “It was a large funnel cloud, coming over the top of the mountain and then touching down … shearing off the tops of homes,” said OPP Sergeant Chris Maecker. Next, a twister vaulted across Georgian Bay and into the cottage community of Gravenhurst, causing more damage. South of cottage country, in Newmarket and the suburban City of Vaughan, another twister spent the dinner hour ripping the roofs off houses and causing widespread damage and terror. There were unconfirmed reports of tornadoes in Lake Nipissing and Bracebridge.

CARRIE COCKBURN/ NINIAN CARTER/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: ENVIRONMENT CANADA

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