Tonight I had a near-death experience. Well, it was not really near-death, but it sure felt like it.
It happened at around 7:00 P.M. My daughter and her companion have purchased a mobile home in a large trailer park in the city. It’s a “fixer-upper” and I spent the day with her, working to bring it to habitable condition. When she first told me she had bought a trailer at that location, my mind immediately went back to July 31, 1987. On that afternoon, a tornado ripped through Edmonton, killing 27 people. Among the hardest hit were the residents of this particular trailer park, where 15 lost their lives and many homes were destroyed.
At the time I was living within just a few miles of the tornado’s path, and happened to be at the mall nearby, shopping with my two oldest daughters, when the tornado passed. While in one of the shops, we heard on the radio that a tornado had hit south Edmonton, near where my younger two daughters were spending the afternoon with their grandmother. In a panic I called to ensure that they were safe, then we headed towards the mall doors with all the other shoppers to gaze at the sky, shocked and horrified, as the tornado passed by. It was a very strange greenish-blue-black hue, something I had never before seen in my life, an awful, sickening colour that sent shivers down my back, something I hope to never see again. We all stood in the huge glass doors at the mall entrance and watched in awe and fascination, sharing a mutual terror of the unknown as the tornado passed. Edmonton had never before experienced a tornado.
About a half hour later, the rain and wind had slowed enough that we could leave the mall, and we waded through ankle-deep water to get to our car, eager to get home, sick with worry. In the car we heard the news on the radio about the trailer park devastation. I had friends living there. A few minutes later we arrived at home, and shortly after, the sun started to shine, birds were singing, and the sky was calm. It was so bizarre to see this complete weather change. I drove over to a friend’s place nearby to inquire about those in the trailer park, but there was no news. I did not know it at the time, but the tornado had also ripped up houses only a few blocks away from where we lived.
On the radio we were warned that the storm could return, and that we should remain in our basements and stay prepared. It was not until much later that night that we learned the extent of the devastation, and the horrific loss the residents of the trailer park had experienced.
This was the first thought that came to my mind when I learned that my daughter would now be living there. But it was a freak incident in 1987, a first for Edmonton, so it seemed unreasonable to worry.
Edmonton had been having a bit of a heat wave, but the day dawned dreary and rainy. As my daughter and I worked in the trailer, at times the rain came down in sheets, creating huge deposits of water throughout the trailer park streets. We had worked all afternoon, then left to run some errands. After returning at about 5 PM, we started filling holes in walls, scraping floors, vacuuming, bleaching and disinfecting. Our plan was to work late and get at least one room completely painted.
She was up on a ladder filling holes in the wall and I was cleaning windows, when there was a huge flash of light and a sudden violent explosion above us. I had never heard anything so loud or so near. The trailer shook, and we both leapt to our feet, hearts racing. My first thought was that an airplane from the nearby air base must have exploded overhead, and I panicked, wondering where we could run to for safety before the debris fell onto the trailer and killed us. We were confused and ran for the door. All I could think of was, “we are going to die, something is going to crash into this trailer and blow us up.”
Her dog was in a panic, running back and forth at the doorway. She tried to calm him and I ran outside to look into the sky. A neighbour across the street stood in her doorway as well, and she told me it had come from the north. At that point I realized it was a lightning strike. My daughter confirmed that the boom had been accompanied by a brilliant flash of lightning, and commented that if you count in seconds the delay between the flash and the sound of lightning to determine the distance – then this one must have been directly overhead because they had occurred simultaneously. Neither of us had ever experienced anything like it, and it took us both several minutes to calm down.
All I could think about was – what if it had been a plane? What if that lightning strike had hit our trailer? What if it was another tornado? How would you run? Where would you escape to?
The next lightning flash was followed by thunder several seconds later, so we knew the storm had passed on. But we wondered, what had been hit nearby? Surely an explosion of that nature must have caused some damage? It wasn’t long before we found out.
Almost 15 minutes later, we heard the sounds of sirens nearby. We commented on the tardy response, but it confirmed our expectations that something must have been hit. Another 15 minutes passed by and a neighbour approached our door. We wondered whether they were looking to meet the new neighbours – but he advised that the lightning strike had hit a gas line and we were all being evacuated.
Memories of the 1986 tornado again filled my head as we grabbed our personal belongings and ran for our cars. My first fear was that turning the ignition might spark an explosion, and I breathed a sigh of relief when this did not occur. There are only two exits from the trailer park and one is closed for construction. So the line ups to get out were lengthy and slow I was ahead of my daughter and her friend, and I nervously watched for them in my rear-view mirror, terrified, not knowing what potential disaster could yet ensue. We only knew that a gas line had been hit by lightning, and I envisioned a massive explosion of the trailer park.
As we inched through the maze of streets, residents in their cars trying to escape in the pouring rain, I kept looking in my rear view mirror watching for my daughter’s car. Suddenly she was at my door…she had run ahead in the traffic jam to talk with me. We inched forward a few more blocks together as we discussed what to do. We really wanted to get the painting of the trailer done, since she had a moving deadline to meet, but there was no way of knowing what this evacuation was all about and just how much danger we were really in.
We neared the exit and she returned to her car, and we gratefully sped out of there, feeling safe from whatever unknown danger remained back there in the trailer park.
Several hours later, on the evening news, we learned that the city had restored services and that residents had been allowed to return. The following morning it was explained that the lightning strike had entered the main gas feed line for the trailer park, causing an immediate gas leak for trailers nearby, and creating the potential for an explosion that could have blown up every trailer in the park.
I returned later that day to continue helping my daughter paint and clean her trailer. But the fear and the shock of hearing that lightning strike directly above will never leave me.
There is a joke on the internet – what do rednecks and tornados have in common? Both eventually end up in trailer parks. I hope for my daughter’s sake that this is just a joke. Tonight’s experience, however, was way too close.