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News teams witness immediate devastation of Barrie Tornado 35 years ago today

Crews from local radio, television and newspapers worked through power outages and devastation to cover one of biggest news events in Barrie's history

Having cut out of work a little early for a Friday afternoon motorcycle ride through the country, Greg Lubianetzky instead found himself looking southward from under the covered front porch of his house on a ridge in Barrie's Letitia Heights as the thunder, lightning and rain began. 

“We watched the storm start coming through the valley and it was just a horrid shade of this orangey green. It just looked menacing,” he recalled. “You could almost see the leading edge of it. ... And lightning, endless lightning.” 

The power then cut out so Lubianetzky switched on his battery-powered radio to learn the shocking news that a tornado had just ripped through the city.

Stunned, he switched through other local stations and then Toronto stations only to hear the news repeated.

It was a late Friday afternoon  May 31, 1985.

Lubinesky, a reporter at what was then CKVR television, decided it was time to head back into work. 

ALLANDALE

Having worked the early morning news shift at CKBB, Martin Vanderwoude was getting up from an afternoon nap at his Carolyn Street home in Allandale to find the power had gone out.

His first thought was his parents, so he hopped in his car and headed to the Minet’s Point area to check on them. But they weren’t home so he turned around following what turned out to be an eerie path home along Yonge Street.

“I saw this weird weather at my left,” he recalls.

Looking out the driver-side window, he saw debris flying high up in the air. And although he later learned he was travelling parallel to and in the opposite direction of the tornado only about a half-kilometre away, he never considered it might be a twister.

What hit Barrie, despite all its force and the massive devastation it caused, was not visible; the twister was shrouded in rain. The thunderstorm that produced the tornado brought an extreme rainfall, which wrapped around the actual tornado.

No one actually ever saw the twister itself.

“I was on the edge of it. I just thought this stuff is so high in the air, this is crazy,” he said. “It crossed Yonge Street behind me. I didn’t think, at the time, about a tornado.”

HIGHWAY 400

Heather Mount (now Malnick) had taken over the CKBB news desk at 2 p.m. As she looked out the large window of the Ferris Lane office onto Highway 400 a few hours later, she noticed the weather had become nasty.

“I could remember the sky turning a brownish colour,” she said. “I was starting to see bits of debris coming from the sky.”

She quickly ran through the station to alert everyone to head to the basement. She didn’t know what was coming, but she could see that it was no ordinary thunderstorm.

Soon the power was out and even though the station’s maintenance man got the generator working, the station had been knocked off the air.

Calls from the stringers came in first with reports of the damage and even deaths.

And the calls kept on coming.

Then confirmation from the weather office through the Broadcast News wire, powered by the generator, confirmed that a tornado had struck Barrie. She later learned a series of tornadoes skipped across central Ontario, killing four people before hitting ground and scraping a path from the southwest of the city, heading east across the city, claiming another eight lives, before finally going aloft. 

But the first news of that deadly storm didn’t arrive until it was too late.

DOWNTOWN

A contingent of the print media sat gathered at what was then the Beefeater Pub, now British Arms, a stone’s throw from the Barrie Examiner’s downtown office that years later was refurbished to become the Salvation Army Bayside Mission.

J.T. McVeigh had just photographed a cartoonish scene at the city’s iconic Five Points where traffic chaos erupted after the power went out and a massive wind storm moved in. When lightning lit up the sky over the Simcoe Hotel, he retreated to the newsroom where the crackling police radio and all the other radios had all gone silent.

Without power, the journalists headed over to their regular Friday evening haunt. 

“The server is handing over a glass of beer and said, ‘Hey, did you hear about the tornado in Allandale?’ I kind of said to her, ‘I’ll be back'.”

McVeigh, with reporter Barry Ward, then headed for the scene via Anne Street where they parked the car, walking the remainder of the way to Highway 400 where they found mayhem.

Traffic on the highway had stopped and the raceway, which now sits vacant at Essa Road, was a mess.

“There was a guy actually sitting on top of his SUV that had chainlink fence wrapped around his car. He was on Essa Road. And he was just kind of sitting there,” recalled McVeigh. “There was a lot of that. People were just kind of stunned.”

He describes an odd quiet in that entire area straddling the highway over to the Patterson Road industrial area where a section had been flattened.

HIGHWAY 400

Lubianetzky’s otherwise short drive to the television station on Beacon Road, just off Essa Road, had suddenly become an obstacle challenge. It was also a sobering experience.

His first attempt toward Ferndale Drive was blocked by fallen hydro lines, so he doubled back, crossing Highway 400, and his drive up Essa Road took him alongside the open field that was then the Barrie Raceway.

“That was my first view of things because I obviously drove right through the middle of where the funnel went through, across the racetrack and up the other side through the Volvo dealership and it was almost too much to take in,” he said.

Cars were strewn throughout and one lay sticking out from inside a tractor-trailer that lay on its side.

“The storm went through and then it was, ‘Hey, wow, what a beautiful day'.”

ESSA ROAD

Shortly after returning home, Vanderwoude’s sister pulled into his driveway with her kids in the car. She was in tears as she described the war zone she had just seen.

Vanderwoude tried calling the station, but his phone was out. “It was mass pandemonium.”

He made it to Essa Road, but it was closed. So he got out and started talking to a police officer on scene when he recognized a friend of his dad’s walking toward him.

He was wearing painter’s white, but it was flecked with red. He said his car had overturned in the storm and was now demolished. The window had smashed causing several small cuts and the red splotches on his painters’ white.

Vanderwoude gave him a lift home and finally made it to the station for a staff meeting to determine the radio station’s course of action.

PRINT NEWS

Leaving the mess on and alongside the highway, the Barrie Examiner team then worked their way up Fairview Road into the Allandale residential area where the tornado had picked its way through, destroying some homes and leaving others intact. 

Several hours later, with his entire stash of film exhausted, McVeigh worked his way back to the newsroom. And although he was able to develop the film, he had to wait for the power and water to be restored before he could print his images and the many others that started coming in from the other reporters.

With no power and no refrigeration, the former Reggie's sandwich restaurant was keen to provide the Examiner crew with food, essentially offered as a newsroom buffet, as the reporters banged out copy on manual typewriters until the lights finally came back on.

Eight pages of tornado coverage filled Saturday’s paper. But the circulation manager decided that, with so many homes destroyed, the print run should be reduced, “which was a great error,” said McVeigh, “because we ran out.

“On Monday, they figured out that they should have probably printed more papers on Saturday.”

Coverage continued into the weekend and through the next week as rescue turned to recovery and cleanup groups, such as the volunteer Mennonite Disaster Service and the army moving in to sort through the devastation.

Then came the politicians and insurance company assessors, which eventually led to tourists wanting to see the what the tornado had wrought firsthand.

The following week, the Saturday paper compensated for the print underrun from the original tornado coverage and reprinted the front and third page of the entire week’s papers. There were no extra papers available that week.

TELEVISION NEWS

With no power, much of CKVR’s news crew decamped to the north-end apartment of one of the station’s producers where the power was never interrupted. Hauling up the equipment they needed to create the reports, they quickly assembled some editing and voiceover suites. The next day, CKVR aired a 30-minute special on the tornado in addition to its regular newscast.

Lubinesky tried, in vain, on Friday evening to secure a plane for overhead shots. But the next day he had success and flew to Singhampton where he started to follow the track of the series of the May 31 tornado to Barrie from 1,500 feet. 

That report, Eye of the Storm, is now at the Library and Archives Canada as an example of what could be achieved in media through the technological advancements of 1985.

RADIO NEWS

Mount and Vanderwoude worked in tandem through the weekend.

From the station Vanderwoude went back to Allandale, making his way through Baldwin Lane, Adelaide Street and St. John Vianney school and church.

“When you first saw it, you thought there’s got to be hundreds dead,” he said of the scene. “The scale of it was just huge.”

In all the devastation he came across the police chief, whose house had just been destroyed in the tornado.

“He seemed distraught when I first saw him, but he pulled himself together,” he recalled. “Then he said we have eight people dead.”

Vanderwoude clearly remembers it was twilight.

CKBB reported not just on what had just happened and how, but also relayed information about how people could access services and supplies, such as fresh water and natural gas.

“We were a voice of support for the city,” said Mount, now a Presbyterian minister in Bracebridge. “The tornado made me realize the immediacy and support radio could be in the time of crisis.”

Mount finally went home to Angus for a good night’s sleep on Sunday.


About the Author: Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative

Marg. Buineman is an award-winning journalist covering justice issues and human interest stories for BarrieToday.
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