PAST EMERGENCIES

Introduction

Emergencies don’t only happen to other people in other communities.  Several major incidents and emergencies have impacted residents of Lambton County through the years.  Listed below are some of those events.  In some cases, such as the 2003 Blackout, the cause occurred far away but still affected us here in Lambton.  You will see that our history demonstrates the importance of being prepared for emergencies at home.

To learn how to prepare for potential emergencies in Lambton County, please also click on the “Hazards in our Community” tab above.

Emergencies Lambton

1902 Wanstead Train Wreck

More than a century before a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 50 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a tiny community in central Lambton County was the site of one of Canada’s most deadly train disasters.  Below is an article written by paul.morden@sunmedia.ca

In a raging evening blizzard on December 27, 1902, the Pacific Express passenger train was running late and racing west on the Grand Truck Railroad line from London to Sarnia.

At the same time, a slow-moving freight train lumbered east through the storm to reach the siding at Wanstead so it could allow the passenger train to pass.

A report published just days following the wreck, in the Petrolia Advertiser and Canadian Oil Journal newspaper, tells the story of the devastating results when the freight train failed to reach the switch in time.

Some 31 people died, and scores were injured, when the two trains slammed into each other near the small community of Wanstead, just east of Wyoming.

The two engines landed in the ditch alongside the tracks and the passenger train’s baggage car was thrown on top of the first class coach.

A passenger told the newspaper an estimated 50 people were pinned in the debris.

A fire broke out in some of the cars following the crash, but it was said an an old man rallied other surviving passengers to smother the flames with coats and hat-loads of snow.

Rescuers and doctors raced to the scene from Petrolia and other nearby communities to help in the recovery and rescue. That effort included a relief train sent from London carrying a dozen doctors.

Survivors, and the remains of the dead, were carried back to London by a special train.

“The bodies taken from the wreck were frightfully mangled,” the newspaper report said, “some of them almost beyond recognition.”

An unofficial list published by the Petrolia newspaper included passengers from Sarnia, Petrolia, Wyoming, Watford, Strathroy and many other towns and cities across Ontario, as well as Chicago and communities in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Photograph appears courtesy of the Lambton County Archives. Local History Photography Collection, 15IE-A

Emergencies Lambton

1913 Great Lakes White Hurricane

The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, historically referred to as the “Big Blow,” the “Freshwater Fury,” or the “White Hurricane,” was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds that hammered the Great Lakes between November 7 and November 10, 1913.  The storm was at its most destructive on Sunday, November 9, when it raged for 16 hours, battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron.

The White Hurricane was the deadliest and most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the Great Lakes and killed more than 250 sailors, destroyed 19 ships, and stranded 19 others.

“November gales” are not uncommon, and this particular storm produced  145 km/h (90 mph) wind gusts, waves over 11 m (35 feet) high, and whiteout snow squall conditions.  Incredibly, almost 62 years later to the day, a gale of November sunk the Edmond Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975.

The “White Hurricane” also has a Lambton County connection (from the St. Joseph and Area Historical Society website)

“(The ship) the “Northern Queen” went down off Port Franks and the story of its wreck is one of great courage and strength on the part of the crew and of great kindness and generosity of the local people in the Port Franks area.

The details of the events concerning this ship’s last days come from the Parkhill Gazette and the Port Huron paper.  There are significant differences in the two reports.  Anyway, the “Northern Queen” passed port Huron northbound on Sunday morning November 9 and sailed about 40 miles north in terrible weather.  By the time Captain Crawford turned his ship around to go back south the storm was a “white hurricane.”  One report suggests that the “Queen” nearly made it to Port Huron but turned north again and found the storm made it impossible to do anything.  According to one report the ship was about 8 miles off Port Franks, unable to sail further.  Captain Crawford described waves of tremendous heights pounding over the ship “stripping some of the upper works and smashing through the ports.” Water poured into the Captain’s quarters and throughout the ship putting out most of the boiler fires and leaving the ship without steam for power.  At some point the ship lost its rudder and drifted.  On Monday the ship “dropped into the triangle of the sea” and the crew lowered both anchors.  After a time there was “a sudden lurch she shivered and crunched from stem to stem…there was a terrible crash and we knew she had lost both anchors.”

So the crew are now without any way of steering or controlling the ship as it drifted rapidly before the wind.   Sometime on Monday the Northern Queen was a mile off Port Franks.  The men had no food, no fires for warmth, and they clustered together on the bow soaked, cold, and miserable in the still heavy seas.  On Tuesday morning they were about 1000 yards off shore.  The Captain ordered the one remaining life boat over the side and 10 men went over the side into the lifeboat.  Great effort was needed to keep the boat from being smashed against the hull of the ship.  According to one report a cable had been attached to the lifeboat so that it could be pulled back to the ship.  The cable, however, snapped.  The 10 crew members got to shore with the help of local people who took them into their homes to be fed, dried, and warmed up after days of exposure to wind, snow, cold water, and lack of food.

Here the stories vary.  One story has the crew attaching a cable to a large crate of goods and throwing the crate overboard.  When it drifted close to shore the local men went in and pulled it to shore.  The cable could now be attached to the life boat and pulled back to the ship.

Another version of the story has two of the crew from the group of 10 taken to shore trying to return the life boat to the ship only to be capsized in the heavy surf.  In this version a second life boat was then launched from the ship to take 9 crew members to shore leaving the captain, the first mate, William McDonald, and the second mate.

One way or another, the last three were taken ashore and the crew of 22 from the “Northern Queen” were saved by their own courage and fortitude, and by the aid given to the crew by the local people.

The ship itself may have drifted further south before it finally went to the bottom.  Evidently a number of years ago divers looking for a ship northwest off Kettle Point may have been looking for the “Northern Queen”.  The official location of its sinking is Kettle Point.”

Emergencies Lambton

1953 Sarnia Tornado

On Thursday, May 21, an F3 tornado crossed the St. Clair River and struck downtown Sarnia.  Damage to buildings and structures was extensive, being estimated at 59.7 million dollars (in year 2000 dollars).  Approximately 500 residents had to be evacuated from the affected areas of town.

“On May 21, 1953, heavy rain and golfball-sized hail preceded the tornado that devastated the downtown.  The storm continued across Lambton and Middlesex counties, and passed just north of London.  In all, the storm was responsible for seven deaths, five of them in Ontario.  The tornado caused $5 million worth of damage in Sarnia. Sarnia’s most damaged downtown landmarks included the Vendome Hotel, the Imperial Bank, Taylor’s furniture store and the Imperial Theatre.  The theatre sustained so much damage that it was later demolished. Debris cluttered Christina Street and trees were toppled along the half mile-wide swath of destruction the tornado left.

Pat McLean, whose family lived at the corner of Brock and Cromwell streets, said trees were falling all over the place.  “It was like somebody was playing pickup sticks and everything dropped,” she said.  Geoff Lane of Sarnia was a new Observer reporter at the time and remembers watching a grey spiral cloud rotate above Port Huron.  He thought it was a dust devil phenomenon like he had seen in East Africa as he watched it cross the river behind a freighter and disappear from his view at about 5:40 p.m.  But when he left the office that was closer to George Street than the current building, he saw the devastation he had narrowly escaped.

Observer staff worked by flashlight at manual typewriters in the powerless city to get the news out.  As they worked, there were sporadic cases of looting after the storm.  Troops from Camp Ipperwash and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were quickly called in to help local provincial police patrol the streets.  Police Chief Sydney Pratt declared the city under martial law, giving police the power to deal with looters, and acting mayor Clayton Saylor read the riot act from the steps of city hall in an effort to get people to disperse from the streets.  Residents and local industries aided in the cleanup, which began a mere hour after the storm ended.”  (Copyright The Observer (Sarnia) 2003, All Rights Reserved) 

Emergencies Lambton

1983 Reeces’ Corners Tornado

On Monday, May 2, tornadoes brought destruction where they touched down in several locations across the County – from Walpole Island to the former Town of Forest.  Reece’s Corners in the former Township of Plympton was hardest hit, with fourteen homes and businesses seriously damaged, and thirteen people injured by an F3 tornado.  Eighteen families were temporarily made homeless.

Fortunately, tornadoes are a relatively rare occurrence, but every summer, thunderstorms pass through our area that have the capacity to spawn tornadoes and unleash damaging winds.

“I saw it two seconds before it hit.  It looked like a wave.  There was no funnel, just swirling white stuff everywhere.  I didn’t see it, but the funnel must have been 300 feet wide.  It was unreal.  It was like a freight train running over us.”  (Eyewitness account of the May 2, 1983 Reece’s Corners Tornado).

Emergencies Lambton

2003 Blackout

On Thursday, August 14, 2003, 10 million people living in Ontario and 40 million more in eight U.S. states were left without electricity during the largest blackout in North American history.  A cascade of failures, beginning with the shutdown of a power plant in Ohio earlier in the day and the subsequent overloading of power transmission lines, led to the blackout.  To prevent damage (or further damage) to power plants, more than 100 were forced to shut down.  Throughout the affected area, residents, businesses and agencies were caught off-guard, not having auxiliary power to run essential equipment such as lighting, radios and safety systems.  Some areas of Lambton County were without power for two days, but some affected areas were out for one or two weeks as transmission lines were repaired and power plants brought back online.

In the weeks following the outage, residents and businesses were asked or required to reduce electricity consumption to avert rolling blackouts as the power grid was restored (do you remember stores and businesses operating with only half their interior lights turned on?).  Many residents learned that an incident hundreds of kilometres away could unexpectedly affect them at home.  Many also learned the importance of being prepared for power failures.

Click here to learn more about preparing for power outages and how to respond if an outage occurs.

Emergencies Lambton

2010 Snow Squall Emergency

During a multi-day snow squall that began on December 12, 2010, an estimated 1,500 people were stranded on Highway #402 and area roadways.  Snow squall conditions began Sunday, December 12, and did not let up until the morning of Tuesday, December 14.  At one point, the weather system was referred to as a “conveyor belt of snow coming off Lake Huron” by an Environment Canada meteorologist.  Due to the significant impact of this event and the resources needed to respond, Mayor Steve Arnold, Warden for Lambton County at the time, declared a County emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act on the evening of December 13.  During the worst of the squall between December 13 and 14, a number of travellers were rescued from the Highway by the Warwick Snowmobile Club because many people were trapped in their vehicles without proper clothing, food, water or vital medication.  Extreme snow squall conditions remained dangerous until later in the morning of December 14, at which time the Canadian military, requested by Lambton OPP and supported under the County declaration of emergency, was able to begin rescue flights to transport the remaining travellers from the Highway to the Village of Wyoming, then driven to a local shelter.  The last of 10 emergency shelters operating in the effected areas was closed by late afternoon December 15.  The entire length of Highway #402 was reopened on the morning of December 16, and the County declaration of emergency was lifted shortly after.

It is known that almost 700 travellers were accommodated in local emergency shelters (in Thedford, Forest, Watford, Warwick Village, Alvinston, Wyoming (2), Oil Springs, Petrolia and Brigden), and it is estimated that an equal number who were stranded on local roads were also either given shelter or food by Lambton residents.  It was observed that many people rescued from Highway #402 did not have basic items like winter boots and clothing with them.

Emergencies Lambton

2011 Central Lambton Tornado

A high-end F2 tornado struck east of the community of Wyoming on the evening of Saturday, July 23.  The tornado caused the collapse of five steel Hydro One transmission towers and snapped or downed over 20 wooden hydro poles resulting in a massive power outage throughout much of the County.  Some areas had power restored within an hour or so, but many parts of central and eastern Lambton were without electricity until Sunday afternoon and late evening.  Fortunately, no one was injured and no homes were hit directly by the tornado.

In looking back, it is significant to note that no one reported seeing the actual funnel because a heavy “rain curtain” obscured it from view.  Many people reported a “wall of white,” but not a funnel – a description eerily similar to eyewitness accounts of the 1983 Reece’s Corners tornado.  Rain curtains make tornadoes particularly dangerous because people may not realize that a tornado is headed in their direction.  The best action to take if there is a severe storm, or the wind is growing in strength, or you can’t see because of rain or darkness is take cover!

Emergencies Lambton

2014 Grand Bend Tornado

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 27, an intense thunderstorm moved inland off Lake Huron between Kettle Point and Grand Bend and spawned an EF1 tornado that struck just south of the community of Grand Bend in Lambton Shores.  Several thousand trees along with hydro lines were downed by the short-lived but powerful winds, causing damage to a number of residences and vehicles, and one significant injury to a camper at Pinery Provincial Park.  Had the tornado gone through the middle of the Pinery or Grand Bend, the destruction and consequences would have been much greater.  This event marked the first time MyCNN was used to conduct a county-wide public alert.

Emergencies Lambton

2014 Central Lambton Boil Water Advisory

On Wednesday, October 15, a near system-wide Boil Water Advisory (BWA) was issued for the Petrolia Water Supply System that serves much of central and southern Lambton County.  A sample taken from a waterline repair site showed contamination, and out of caution, a Boil Water Advisory was issued by the Lambton Medical Officer of Health in consultation with the Town of Petrolia.  MyCNN was used to notify residents in the affected area and in addition, some communities also conducted door-to-door notification of residents.  The Boil Water Advisory was lifted on October 17.

Emergencies Lambton

2015 Natural Gas Release

On June 17, an extremely rare geological event occurred at the Indian Hills Golf Club, owned by the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in the municipality of Lambton Shores.   A naturally occurring pocket of natural gas burst to the surface, causing geysers to erupt in a pond and fissures to form in the ground.  The municipality declared a state of emergency due to this unusual event, leading to the response by a number of government and private agencies.  Fortunately, no one was injured during the incident and the release of natural gas dissipated over the next several days.

The municipality of Lambton Shores terminated the state of emergency in consultation with Kettle and Stony Point First Nation on June 29.