Around this time of year people in Barrie, Ontario often ask one another “Where were you when the tornado hit?” It brings back some amazing stories of survival as well as memories of devastation and loss.
As May 31st will be the 25th anniversary, it would be fitting to reflect on what happened that day. In total there were 13 separate tornadoes, including 2 killer ones (F4 on the Fujita scale) crossing into Southern Ontario from the U.S.A. One of the F4 tornadoes came through Barrie killing 8 people including a young man who worked across the street at a neighboring business found in the plant rubble of Albarrie. There were an additional 155 people injured as well 300 homes destroyed and at least 16 factories including Albarrie.
What I remember on that Friday afternoon was the very unusual hue of the sky. It was a distinctive yellow-green that I have never seen before or since. I do not recall any warnings on the news or weather channels. Communications and early warning systems have advanced significantly in 25 years. Sometime between 3:30PM and 4:00 PM the power went out, but we weren’t sure why. It was later learned that major transformers were hit by tornadoes Southwest of the city.
There was no scheduled evening shift. As the afternoon shift was over for the day, it was decided to send the office staff home early. When I left the building around 4 PM, there were only a couple of employees left closing up. The power going out in advance of the tornado hitting Albarrie was a blessing which saved our staff as well as many other lives.
That evening my husband and I and our infant daughter drove to the Kawarthas to visit relatives. There were a couple of things that stood out that evening which didn’t make sense. First, when we stopped at the bank before leaving Barrie; there were people talking about homes being ripped apart and missing walls and roofs in an area just across from the bank and Lake Simcoe. At the time we actually thought these people had had too much to drink. And during the trip we saw pieces of pink insulation scattered everywhere as well as assorted debris.
Later when we saw the evening news, there was unbelievable footage of Albarrie totally destroyed. It looked similar to war pictures with piles of rubble, twisted metal and broken machinery. I remember anxiously calling my boss to find out what had happened to the employees who had locked up. He assured me everyone from Albarrie had made it out safely. One employee had actually driven home in the tornado and saw cars flying around in the air. When she pulled her car over to the side of the road, she said it sounded like an army was pounding on it with baseball bats.
25 years later I feel fortunate to be here to have these memories as well as happy that Albarrie has rebuilt and prospered.
– S. Johnson