Sudbury marks 50th anniversary of devastating tornado, one of Canada's deadliest
SUDBURY -- It's an ominous anniversary for the City of Greater Sudbury, one of tragedy and community resilience as the mega-city marks the 50th anniversary of the Sudbury tornado.
The twister touched down at approximately 8:30 on a Thursday morning and gave little to no warning for the people in its path.
Starting in Lively, a community now part of Greater Sudbury, the tornado tore a path through the Inco-owned town destroying hundreds of homes while making its way east towards the nearby neighbourhood of Copper Cliff, indiscriminately targeting homes.
Trains were thrown like rag dolls, officials with the mining company immediately put a halt on smelting operations.
The violent column of air also made its way through the City of Sudbury boundaries and continued through to the town of Field, Ont. spawning another tornado and leaving devastation in its wake.
While there was no reported funnel cloud, the tornado has since been classified as an F3 with wind speeds reaching up to 332 kilometres an hour.
The storm eventually moved its way through North Bay and weakened as it got closer to Ottawa.
In Sudbury, six people were killed, 200 were injured, and many lives were thrown into chaos.
Survivors recall memories of the tornado
It was an era where there were no cell phones. The immediate news out of the region was that Lively had been levelled.
Mary Crowder was home alone with her two young children that day. Her parents were vacationing in British Columbia and desperate for any word from their family.
"We were staying with my parents because we were building a house on Hillcrest, and so we were living with them and boarding down in the basement. I had the two kids and my husband was at work, and all of a sudden, I heard a noise and went 'what the heck.' I look out the window and there goes a boat floating past," recalled Crowder.
She grabbed her children and ran down to the basement and by the time she got there it had stopped.
"We came up and walked outside and saw the destruction and, of course, my parents were in B.C. on vacation and they had got word that Lively had been flattened. We didn't have cell phones in those days and so panic ensued, and they headed back home and we were all fine," Crowder said.
The family's home had only minor damage. They would end up being one of the luckier families in Lively.
The devastation and destruction
One of the harder hit homes in the city was owned by the Prowse family. It had been picked up off its foundation, turned around and then slammed down onto the ground.
Lloyd Prowse, his wife and his 19-year-old son were home at the time.
A TV crew caught the senior Prowse in utter shock, leaving his home, just trying to pick up the pieces while making sense of the utter devastation.
His suburban house and 11th Avenue neighbourhood had been destroyed. A mechanic by trade, even his tools had been stripped away from him.
Prowse, now almost 95-years-old, still recalls the day a freak tornado turned his life upside down.
"When I woke up, I had my knees on the floor and my arms on the bed and the bed had already gone down against the wall. The house had already gone around and I had already had the ride," said Prowse. "I looked out to the kitchen, I knew there were three windows there and there wasn't any, and it was right full of mud and lightning."
He had been sleeping and woke up on the floor.
"When I woke up, my wife was standing in the back corner on top of the bed screeching. And I told her 'Ruth get down, this is a tornado and it'll be over in a couple of minutes.' Now how did I know that? I don't know where that came from," said Prowse.
He said had it not been for the pipes at the corner of the home, the storm could have very well taken off with the building.
All he could do was look at his tools in the ground, unable to pick any of them up, while he cradled a little dog in his arms.
"That's not me," Prowse said. "I was off sick and there was a $1,000 cheque on the dresser. Everything else was gone but that cheque."
His son, Wayne, was living at home at that time.
"I remember it was raining harder than I had ever seen. I remember looking out at my neighbour's backyard and their steel shed just went up and gone. Like things like that like you never see and then the house just started creaking and cracking," said Wayne.
The 19-year-old went back to bed in an effort to ride out the twister.
He recalls a steel garbage can lid that flew through the home and lodged itself just above a bed.
"Luckily, my sister was at nurse's college because she was on the west side of the house and glass was embedded in the gyprock. She would have been injured for sure. Luckily, we were on the other side of the house," Wayne said. "It was the rain and when that roar started coming up and the house creaked and cracked, that's pretty much all I can remember."
The Prowse home was one of the only homes on the block that would have to be torn down and rebuilt on its existing foundation.
Jack Blackwell was a close friend of Wayne's, the best man at his wedding and lived just a few blocks behind the Prowse family home. He was at nearby Meatbird Lake working when he learned Lively had taken a direct hit.
"It got very, very black and we were working on the waterline, so we went inside the water building for cover and it got very, very still and very dark," said Blackwell. "And 15 minutes after it subsided, my foreman said 'you better get home, Lively has been turned upside down.'"
He said he remembers coming up over the hill at the lake and seeing the rubble cover the streets.
"Going past the Prowse's house and it was literally picked up and turned sideways. And at that point, I started running because my house wasn't very far away and I was very afraid," said Blackwell.
He said seeing the Prowse's house, made him cry.
"I was 19 at the time, but I was very afraid. I knew I had four siblings and my parents at home, so I was afraid of what I could have seen when I arrived," said Blackwell.
He said he ran past the Landriault house on 9th Avenue and the top half had been ripped off. It had kids laying in the rubble. His house was directly behind it and had only lost a few shingles. Their garage was the only one on the entire block that had been left standing.
"It was literally a nightmare but I was relieved that my siblings and my parents were okay," Blackwell said.
Garth Wunsch said what he remembers most about that event was how dark it got.
"I was a young geologist working at Creighton. Photography was my avocation and I asked the boss 'can I go out an photograph this?' I knew what was happening and he said 'okay' because nothing else was going on at work that day anyway. And I remember just coming down into Lively and seeing the devastation," said Wunsch.
He said if you go out into the bush behind the Lively Golf Course today, you're bound to find pieces of homes and remnants of the tornado still there five decades later.
"Trees and houses were turned into kindling, it left a lot of firewood. It's hard to believe it's been 50 years," said Wunsch.
Ward 2 Councillor Michael Vagnini and his family had moved into Lively from Creighton and he was home with his mother at the time when the tornado struck.
"My mom had a broken leg at the time… and she was calling to me saying 'get downstairs, get downstairs.' My father had already left for work, and so she was bouncing down the stairs and I kept saying 'mom, get your crutches, get your crutches.' And we went into the basement and we're looking out the basement windows because they were ground level and we saw garbage cans going by. We saw dog houses going by and we saw all kind of things like that," said Vagnini. "It was something you can't possibly imagine all rolled into one. The hail that was coming down, the rain and then the tornado. It was something that you'll never forget."
Remembering the lives lost
One of the six people killed was Sharon Neville's 52-year-old uncle, Vincent Howard, who was on his way to work in Copper Cliff when the tornado struck.
Howard lived with Neville and her family on Kingsmount Avenue in the Sudbury neighbourhood of Lockerby.
"I was just sitting in my room and hearing my uncle and my mom talking. It was a sunny, sunny day they said to each other and then he said 'Loretta, you're going to do a big load of laundry and Sharon's breakfast is waiting for her and I'll be home in no time,'" Neville said.
It was the last time she ever heard or saw her uncle. He was on his way to the smelter when the tornado hit, throwing him through the windshield of the vehicle.
"All of a sudden, mom says 'it's getting dark.' And then the rain and the hail coming down the street and I said 'oh mom,' and she said 'Sharon help me, the door is prying open.' And my mom was just devastated and I was pushing the door along with her," said Neville.
She said she was seven-years-old at the time and describes herself as the "apple of her uncle's eye."
Her father was on her way home from Falconbridge and the phone started to ring in her uncle's bedroom. Her mother went to answer the phone and learned he had passed away.
"I still remember crying and crying. I couldn't believe that he was gone. And when the people started coming in from out of town, I knew he was really, really gone.," said Neville. "I would say it was about the biggest funeral, it was so big even for the 70s, and even today I miss him and I think of him."
She said any time she hears storms and lightning, it brings up memories from that tragic time.
"I hope we don't have another one with all of this heat, and there's a lot of storms happening right now and tornados, so I'm always wary about that," Neville said.
Recovery efforts began right away
Len Turner, the town's mayor, and former Sudbury Mayor Joe Fabbro declared their communities disaster areas and the military moved in to help.
Members of the provincial and federal governments were dispatched to the city and Sudbury City Council established a $2 million relief fund to help those impacted.
"Everything started happening and the police were in here and they had to close the streets. The guards were in here and the military was in here and we were locked down, but I remember it going very well. The Inco trucks were coming in and fixing things up," said Blackwell.
The Town of Lively, at the time, was owned by the mining giant Inco, which is now called Vale. After it was rebuilt, the company sold the homes privately to the workers who had been renting them.
"It didn't take Inco long to rebuild. They had money and they had contractors," Prowse said. "Everything I had was destroyed. I had a Buick Riviera and it was a mess, all of the windows broke out of it and it was full of water. The garage was gone. There was a Volkswagen, it went up and through the telephone pole."
Vagnini said the tornado is something that people in the community still talk about today.
What he recalls most was the rebuilding effort and how the community rallied around one another to rebuild after the devastating tragedy.
"They had the militia in at the time and you had to prove you were from Lively to get past the gate or the gatekeepers, but everyone was looking out for everybody," said Vagnini. "There was a period of time where we didn't have power .... and I remember my brother saying the militia walked him home one night. People were patrolling for each other."
With all of the damage, none of the churches had been touched in the tornado, and Vagnini said many Italians in the community had believed it was by some sort of divine intervention.
The City of Greater Sudbury has created an interactive storymap takes users on a historical journey through the events of August 20, 1970. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, the application follows the route of the tornado and shares archival photos and media coverage.
View the storymap here