July 31, 1987 was a Friday. I was a reporter in Fort McMurray, Alta. and I was planning on heading down to Edmonton for the weekend.
Just before I left, I phoned a buddy of mine who worked at CBC to see it he wanted to hook up for a beer when I hit town. “Can’ttalkrightnowgottagobye,” was the uncharacteristically terse response before the phone went dead.
“Wow, that was rude,” I thought to myself, wondering what had gotten into him. And with that, I boarded the Red Arrow Express bus for the (relatively) big city.
Fort McMurray is about 270 miles north northeast of Edmonton. The first leg, going south, is the goat trail known as Highway 63. About 60 miles south is Marianna Lakes. The next town south is Wandering River.
Between Wandering River and Marianna Lakes, we hit some incredibly bad weather: Big hail, blinding, violent lightning flashes, gusts of wind that hip-checked the bus and thunderclaps that sounded like the echoing drumbeats of doom.
As we travelled further south, the weather started to break up. By the time we reached the junction of Highways 63 and 28, it was a beautiful evening.
Just north of Gibbons, the bus driver turned on the radio. “… And the death toll is believed to be 38 now,” intoned a grim voice that wouldn’t have sounded out of place talking about the aftermath of a nuclear blast.
That was a unquestionably a major WTF moment.
And that’s how I learned about the tornado.
I grew up in Edmonton and over the course of my life to that point, there had never been a major tornado in northern Alberta. Well, a first time for everything, I guess.
That sucker was an F4, the second-most powerful on five-point Fujita scale. At one point, it was 1.1 kilometres wide at the base.
The approximate path of the tornado.
The tornado started south of Edmonton, crossed the Sherwood Park freeway (a lot of people died there), worked its way up Refinery Row and finished off in the Evergreen trailer park just northeast of Edmonton. Over the course of 70 minutes, the tornado would kill 27 people (14 in the trailer park), injure hundreds and cause about $330 million in property damage.
A future colleague, Mark Wyatt, was a CP summer student in Edmonton that year. He spent his Friday night counting the tarp-covered bodies pulled out of the trailer park’s wreckage.
At one point, I saw the damage to the oil storage tanks at the Imperial Oil refinery. To me, it looked like a giant had walked through and put the boots to these huge tanks.
All in all, a surreal time. Despite seeing physical evidence like the smashed tanks, I remember my main feeling being one of disbelief. Fortunately, the tornado spared people I knew. I was was worried about my dad because he was going out for a carnival gig southeast of Edmonton that day. Theoretically, he could have been in the tornado’s path, but he was okay. My parents’ home was fine. My mom said when the storm hit, the whole sky was black.
The one quote that stands with me is from a long-forgotten Edmonton Eskimo who came up from Texas to play football. He lived at Evergreen. His words? “Man, if I’d knowed ya’ll had tore-nay-does up here, I’da nevah lived in no trailah park!”
But we didn’t have tornadoes there. Not until that terrible day.
Strangely, EdmontonJournal.com had coverage, but didn’t pull together a full online feature of its own that was linked to from its home page. They didn’t even have an online photo gallery. Chris Simon won an NNA for one of his tornado photos. It would have been nice to see it again.