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Memory Lane: Readers share memories of the 1970 Sudbury tornado

Disaster remembered as one of worst in Canadian history

Tornados are such a rare occurrence in Northern Ontario that in 1970  Sudbury Airport didn't have weather radar capable of detecting them. 

Without warning on Aug. 20, 1970, a tornado blasted through Elliot Lake, Lively, then Copper Cliff and southwest neighbourhoods of Sudbury, including Robinson and Lockerby. The storm then moved east to Field, eventually weakening as it moved toward the Quebec border.

There was no visible funnel cloud, but some people remembered the sky was a greenish colour. Gerry LaForge, who was fishing near Sturgeon Falls, said  the sky went black and there was a hail storm. invited readers to share their memories of the twister classified as a F3 level tornado with wind speeds of 254 to 332 km/h.

It remains one of the worst tornadoes in Canadian history. Six people were killed and at least 200 injured. Damage was estimated at more than $17 million in 1970 dollars (about $115 million today).

"This hands-on disaster experience had an impact on the rest of my life, including a great fear of storms," said Fran Coyne, who was 22 and working as a ward clerk in the ER at Sudbury General Hospital the day of the tornado.

"It was a very beautiful, peaceful summer morning. All the windows were open. Unknown to us, this is what is called 'the calm before the storm.'

"I was lucky enough to go on the early coffee shift. The second group did not get that chance. Returning to my station, the wind came up so strong, whipping our paperwork into a frenzy. After rushing to close the windows, all chaos broke loose. The ambulance switchboard could not keep up with the calls coming in. At this point, we realized something bad had happened.

"Our disaster plan had just been reviewed and updated. As I was the typist on the project, the procedures were still fresh in my mind. Seeing our head nurse standing by the phone, in shock, I started reciting some of the first steps we needed to take. This brought her and the whole department into action."

Coyne recalled the first patients came from Laurentian University where people were injured when windows were blown inward. Downed power lines near the hospital became an obstacle. People knocked on the hospital's back doors asking for stretchers to manually transport the injured the rest of the way. 

"Needless to say, the next 12 hours was a flurry of activity, treating patients, replenishing supplies, ordering lab work, and requesting X-rays."

Donald R Gagné was ambulance supervisor at Hôpital St-Jean-de-Brebeuf in Sturgeon Falls in 1970. Aug. 20, 1970 is a day that still haunts him.

"On that unforgettable day, we discovered how quickly an abrupt act of nature created havoc in our northern Ontario region,” he said. “I was at my station monitoring the ambulance service radios — without warning the first mayday call came from Sudbury."

With only thunderstorms forecasted, Gagne remembered thinking the call was simply a rehearsal  of emergency response facilities.

"In Sturgeon Falls, it was of a routine nature to intercept communications on occasion from places such as Toronto, Windsor, St. Thomas as well as North Bay, Muskoka and Sudbury," he said. "We believed some other station south of us was in a rehearsal mode and unaware their transmissions were carried up to us. Even North Bay and Powassan heard these calls and all thought the same as we did."

But by the time the call was heeded and emergency response vehicles were ready, Sturgeon Falls was hit "with this severe weather anomaly with trees and roofs flying about. We feared for many injuries in our own area so we could not respond to Sudbury," said Gagne.

Rev. Tim Moyle of Mattawa was staying at the family camp on Fairbank Lake when the tornado hit and remembered being worried about members of his family at home in Lively.

"As we listened to radio reports of multiple deaths and tremendous damage in Lively, we feared the worst. We could not reach each other as the tornado knocked down a wide swath of forest that blocked the road between Fairbank and the highway."

Later that day his father arrived at camp by float plane to report the family in Lively was safe and their home undamaged although the dog house in the backyard was gone. 

"We all flew out and returned home to witness the devastation. It was surreal seeing our house and neighbours' homes essentially untouched with others on both ends of the street absolutely demolished. Those images are seared into my memory whenever I think back to that terrible day."

Tommy Genobli said he was able to pick up some emergency transmissions accidentally that day, and the memory has stuck with him all these years.

"I had a set of walkie talkies, and for some reason I could hear communication from the men on the Superstack to the crew on the ground. Their communication was hair-raising. Fifty years later, it is still a clear memory."

The September 1970 Inco Triangle reported, "There were 25 men aloft on the stack top when the Aug. 20 storm … struck during the morning shift change. Undaunted by their hair-raising experience, all men either remained on the job or returned on their next shift as scheduled. Due to good general safety practices, including lashing down all loose equipment and material, no injuries or losses occurred."

Barbara Fisher recalls how black the sky became. "I was driving into work when all hell broke loose. The sky was so black even with high beams on you couldn’t see. Scared the life out of me."

Jamie Canapini was 11 in 1970. "The morning storm woke me up and I didn’t exactly realize what was happening when I looked out the window. My most vivid memory after the storm was the church on the hill (Prete Street) with its walls blown out."

Many of the areas of the city were untouched by the storm, as recalled by Scott Turnbull. 

"I slept through it. Well, I actually woke up briefly and thought the wind might blow my bedroom window in. Then I laughed to myself thinking 'don’t be ridiculous,' and went back to sleep. Turned out I wasn’t being ridiculous."

The City of Greater Sudbury has created an interactive storymap takes users on a historical journey through the events of Aug. 20, 1970.

Public Health Sudbury & Districts offers the following advice in case of a tornado.

If you are indoors:

  • Take cover in the interior of the building. Some safe places in a building during a tornado include a windowless internal room with a solid door, preferably on the lowest level of the house or building. 
  • Stay away from windows, corners, doors and outside walls.
  • Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside.
  • If possible, get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck.
  • If you have been evacuated from your home or office, do not return until it is deemed safe to do so by local officials.

If you are outdoors:

  • Find a field or ditch away from items that can fly through the air and lie down as flat as you can.
  • Do not stay in a car or try to drive away from a tornado. Cars can be flung about by high winds or crushed by debris.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.