To read Part 2, click here.
I had to pee.
It was just after 6pm, 2 hours had passed since the tornado hit, and now that I was alone and could actually focus on myself, that was the first thing I felt. The immediate need to use the bathroom.
All of the stores and businesses were abandoned and locked. I was not going behind a store like I had forced my kids to do. I couldn't go back home to use my bathroom, I couldn't physically get there.
I realized I wasn't far from my friend Sheila's house and set off towards it, hoping she was home. I made it pretty far down the street before I realized it wasn't her street I was even on. As I was walking, people were raking up their lawns, bringing the small tree branches to the curbs and commenting that they "had just about got it all". They were sweating, wiping their brows. I wanted to scream at them.
Did they really have no idea what was happening in their own town just a few blocks away? That people had 100 year old trees through their homes? That people's homes had been blown apart and spread all over the neighbourhoods? That I wasn't allowed anywhere near my own home because of a major gas leak, and even if I was, I would never find a rake? Were they really that concerned about some fucking twigs on their lawns???
But I kept walking. I finally got on the right street and made it to Sheila's house. Her youngest daughter met me at the door.
"Is your mom home?"
"No". Then her oldest son joined her at the door. All of her 4 kids recognized me, but her two boys don't know me all that well.
"Is your dad home?"
"Do you know where they are?"
"Okay, well I need to use your bathroom".
Her oldest son was unsure about this, but I walked in anyway. When I left I told him to tell his mom I had been there. As I walked down the steps I saw Sheila across the road looking at me. I walked over and told her I used her bathroom and she laughed. We talked for a minute and I said something about my house and cars and she just looked at me blankly. I then explained what was going on on my block, which was only about 4 blocks away from hers. She had no idea and couldn't believe it. My phone was almost dead and I was panicking because that was my lifeline at that moment, my way to keep in touch with Jeff and Mike, my mom and everyone else. Jeff had given me his phone when I last saw him and told him mine was almost dead. He said I could use his and if I needed to get in touch with him I could text my brother's phone and he would be able to communicate with me that way. Sheila told me her neighbours had a generator going and I could plug my phone in at their place to charge it. She ran over to her house to get her husband's charger, as I obviously didn't have mine.
Sheila's neighbour is the older sister of a guy I was friends with all through highschool. We chatted about that for a few minutes while plugging my phone in and then Sheila and I went back outside. She told me to come over to her place but I said I needed to go find Jeff. I could not just sit. I needed to be moving. She said she was likely going to take her kids out of town, so if, when I came back for my phone she was gone, I was to just go over to the neighbour's and ask for it.
She repeated about a zillion offers of help and asked what she could do and I said I had no idea at that point, I just wanted to talk to Jeff and see what the story was. Find out when this was all going to calm down.
I walked away from her and headed off into the jungle that was now my side of town to try to find my husband, hoping he was still at the corner of St David and Cambria Streets. Of course he wasn't.
I had a lot of time to think about and process what was going on around me as I was looking for Jeff.
Makenna's family birthday party was next weekend. I had insisted on having it at our home. While sitting by the firetruck she had mentioned that, saying she hoped everything was better by Saturday for the party. She had planned all these games for it. But that it was almost a week away so she was sure everything would be better by then. How was I supposed to tell her there was no way that party would be held at our house? We would have to have it at Jeff's parents farm. The kid had no house, no cars, I had no idea if she even had a school at that point... the least she deserved was a birthday party.
Crap. Her birthday presents were all in the house. I would have to get them out. All her school stuff and new clothes were in there too. I had to get those too. How was I going to do that with all those Cops blocking access?
Someone had said something about an Emergency Centre being set up at the Knights of Columbus Hall across town. I bet Victim Services will be there. I am a Crisis Responder for Victim Services. I should go there. They are going to need everyone they have. This would be my first official call. They always said you would remember your first call.
Yep, think I'll remember this one.
Well, I need my Victim Services backpack and ID. Its in my van. How am I supposed to get that?
I headed back towards my street. There were OPP blocking it, refusing to allow anyone near it, whether they lived there or not. So I walked. I walked and walked and walked around our neighbourhood. I took in the devastation. I had grabbed my camera when I was in the house one of the other times and started taking pictures with it. Mostly I just walked in big circles around the same area, taking it all in. I talked with people I knew, all of them stunned by what we all saw. I kept saying "What do we do? What can we even do?" referring to our house, our cars, our street, our town. Where do you start??
As I walked back by Volvo, a major employer in our town that had shut down a few years earlier, I was stupified by the damage to its building. The car wash across the road was leveled. I couldn't believe it. Out of nowhere my friends Chris and Jen drove by, noticed me and circled back. When I told them what had happened to our street Jen's eyes filled with tears. She couldn't believe our house was as bad as I said it was, and that there were worse ones just steps away from it. I was on and off Jeff's phone at that point, talked to them for a couple minutes and kept walking. At one point I checked Jeff's texts and saw that he had been texting his brother, but the conversation had halted when he had given me his phone. I called Kevin and my voice shook as I was talking to him. I don't know what Jeff had told him, but Kevin had no idea things were as bad as they were. He said he knew our street was in bad shape and that our vehicles were wrecked, but that he had no idea about our house.
Of course not, I realized. Jeff wouldn't have told him that, because Jeff didn't even know that.
So I tried to explain to Kevin what we were dealing with. I knew we could never live in that house again. I knew that house needed to come down. I didn't know where we were going to sleep that night, or any night after that...if we even got to sleep tonight at all. I had texts and messages from 20 different people saying we could stay with them, but I had no idea when the fire department would get a break, and if we would even end up at the same place. I had no vehicle to get anywhere.
Kevin was stunned. I was frustrated and snapped "Hello?? Have you not been on facebook?!"
He replied that no he hadn't because they had lost their internet connection during the thunderstorm. They live about 40 mins away. So I told him he needed to call his parents and tell them. They were enjoying a weekend away in the Sauble Beach area. He wasn't sure it was necessary to tell them and I assured him it absolutely was. I told him to also call his sister who lives in Kitchener. I think he started to understand the urgency and panic in my voice and then realized that I was alone and Jeff was dealing with something huge. Kevin used to be a firefighter himself. He asked me if I needed him to come up. I told him he wouldn't get into town anyway so there was no use even trying. He asked me a few more times, I assured him I would be fine and he had me promise to call him if I needed anything. He promised he would call his parents and their sister.
Not long after that, Jeff's mom called Jeff's phone, which I still had. Kevin had notified them. They were prepared to leave Sauble Beach and come to help. I told them not to, there was nothing they could do and no way they could get into town. I told her we would need help in the coming days, but there was no use today. I tried to explain what was happening and assured her we were fine. I insisted we were still having the birthday party, at their place, and that was all I knew at that point.
At this point I was on my way back to Sheila's to get my own phone. Jeff texted me that he and Mike were at the major intersection in town, which we locals call "The 5 Points". I told him I was going to get my phone and would be there in a bit. Sheila's van was gone. I knew she had taken her kids to her family in the next town and went over to her neighbour's to retrieve my phone.
There were dozens of messages, texts and facebook comments on it. I started to answer them as I walked. Jeff's sister had BBMd me..."Is your house really destroyed?"
Arrrrrgggghhhhh! Yesssssss!!!!! Yes it was!
Clearly, people had no idea what we were dealing with. That would soon change though. The air was filled with the wail of sirens everywhere I went and now there were airplanes and helicopters in the air every time I looked up. The media were moving in.The "5 points" are a block from my house, the next street over from mine. I was able to enter my street the back way and wove my way down it, climbing over trees, downed fences and over all other kinds of fallen debris covering the sidewalk. I followed the path of a guy infront of me who was also trying to get down the same street. He saw me but we never spoke. I BBMd Jeff to tell him what I was doing and he called the cell phone so he could yell at me directly. I told him I needed some stuff and was fine, to focus on what he was supposed to be doing. My brother got on the phone and told me his wife, my sister in law, was at The Knights of Columbus Hall. She is a Crisis Responder for Victim Services too. I told him I planned to go there too and would see them in a couple minutes. I crawled through the van and got my Victim Services Backpack. I grabbed Jeff's wallet and keys out of his truck, stood the storm door up against the doorway to our house again and went and hid my purse in the basement. I came back outside,put my Victim Services ID on, crossed the street and walked through the backyard of Paint Plus and the Union Burger Parking lot towards the 5 Points. A calm came over me as I knew I had a purpose now. It was time to go to work as a Crisis Responder. To put my training into action. I felt useful. I could see my husband and brother looking at me, waving their arms and yelling at me as I got closer.
"I needed to get my backpack" I said simply.
"You're the victim here!" My husband laughed.
"Well, what else am I supposed to do?" I retorted.
He asked me how I was going to get to the Knights of Columbus Hall across town and I said I was going to walk. He didn't like that either but wasn't able to drive me so I didn't have much of a choice. I told him I had been walking all day and was fine. I gave him back his phone and was on my way.
I walked about a block and came to another GFD firetruck that looked like it was about to leave. I made eye contact with Darren, another Captain on the Dept and the father of one of Makenna's closest friends. It was the first time I had seen him. He asked me what I was doing and when I told him he told me to get in the truck.
Ordered me, really.
When I climbed into the truck and sat down, Darren looked at me and said "You're living with us".
I opened my mouth to say something and he said "I've seen your house, already talked to Jeff, I don't want to hear it, you're living with me. As of right now".
I closed my mouth.
I sat in the front seat of the truck between Darren and another fireman as they returned to the hall. He told me that when the tornado initially hit, he, his wife and daughter had been in Stratford. When they were notified and rushed back, he first had went to a fire in Benmiller, a result of the tornado touching down there too. I didn't even know that initially 7 of the firemen had to go to Benmiller, that they couldn't even respond the the town's devastation. I asked him who was "In Command".
The Fire Dept has a hierarchy of command. It starts with the Chief, then the Deputy Chief, then the Captains. Our department has 4 captains, Jeff and Darren being 2 of them. Those 6 people are "officers". Whichever officer is on scene first is "in command"...essentially in charge of the whole show.
Darren informed me that both the chief and deputy chief were out of town, he had been in Stratford and that as far as he knew, Jeff and one other Captain were the only officers in town when the pagers went off. The other Captain, John Dobie, was currently the officer in command.
In command of the aftermath of a tornado. A big tornado. A first for our town, our EMS personelle. He had set up his command post at The 5 Points and had big boards sitting on the ground leaning against the truck with writing, maps and other stuff all over them. Darren said he was doing really well.
I could not imagine what my husband would have been like if he had of been able to get to the hall first and had of been in command. Our chief had been notified and was on his way back from Michigan.
I should mention here too, that by now, Fire trucks had arrived from every single Huron County Dept except for one. The Howick Department did not respond as they were almost an hour away and were told to remain where they were to help cover other areas should they have their own calls to deal with. Trucks had also arrived from Walkerton, Hanover and Lucknow. They had received word that a specialized unit from Toronto was on its way.
Once the truck I was in returned to the hall, I got out and walked to the Knights of Columbus Hall which wasn't very far away. I was ready to work. Ready to help. Ready to support the victims.
Because after all, I was just fine.
This story is far from over. Keep checking back!