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‘Like a scene out of a movie’

Homes destroyed but lives spared, community’s spirit unbroken in wake of ferocious storm

TWISTER: An F2 tornado rips through parts of Woodbridge and Maple last Thursday as stunned motorists look on from their cars on Hwy. 7 at Hwy. 400. (Courtesy Zoriana Zwarycz)

WOODBRIDGE and MAPLE – What began as a story about the awesome and indiscriminate power of nature quickly became a story of neighbour helping neighbour.

Last Thursday, sometime before the supper hour, a ferocious F2 tornado packing a minimum punch of 180 kilometres an hour skipped across Vaughan, tearing roofs from houses, uprooting trees and scarring the communities of Woodbridge and Maple.

“It was something that I’ve never seen,” Mayor Linda Jackson said the next day. “It was like a scene out of a movie but you were actually in that movie.”

Almost immediately, Vaughan’s police, fire and EMS mobilized.

“Within 15 minutes, it was all hands on deck,” Fire Chief Greg Senay said. “The first arriving engine company reported funnel clouds going by the fire station as they were responding to the first call.

“Very shortly into the incident, I should comment, those emergency responders sighted another funnel cloud and they had to stand down and take cover by their vehicles while that cloud went by.”

Within hours, the city had declared a state of emergency. Early damage estimates were staggering: 600 homes damaged, another 200 critically.

Stories of incredible luck began to emerge in the wake of the tornado.

“The little girl on the second floor playing in her room when all of a sudden the roof and part of the walls gets ripped off and she’s sitting there open to the weather,” Councillor Peter Meffe said. “How does a tornado pick up a roof and part of the walls and leave a little girl sitting on the floor of her room?”

Shelters for people forced from their storm-damaged homes were opened at the Father Ermanno Bulfon and Maple community centres.

Remarkably, no one checked in for the night at either shelter.

“Not one resident slept overnight,” Jackson said. “It showed how the community did come together, how they banded together.”

At a temporary community police station on the northwest corner of Martin Grove Rd. and Hwy. 7, aid agencies set up shop to provide what help they could.

In spite of the extensive damage to property in Woodbridge and Maple, no lives were lost and no one was seriously hurt.

“That there was not one casualty and not one serious injury is absolutely remarkable,” Jackson said. “It was a real miracle.”

The worst of the injuries, Senay said, occurred the day after the storm. A man who was evacuated from his damaged home and spent the first night with family suffered a heart attack Friday morning and fell into a coma, he said.

By Monday evening, the state of emergency had been cancelled, the number of critically damaged homes, which had already been reduced to 44 from 200, was reduced again to 38, the shelters had closed without a single overnight stay, and the man who suffered the heart attack had come out of his coma.

“He is still in the intensive care unit but he appears to be improving,” Jackson said Monday morning from the front yard of a home on Burnhaven Ave. in Maple, rebuilding going on in earnest around her.

Jorge Pestana and his wife Laura, owners of the Burnhaven home, narrowly missed the tornado’s full wrath. Their home had shingles blown off and some water damage inside — minor compared to some of their neighbours across the street.

After the storm, they opened their doors, allowing others to use their bathrooms, and provided food for those whose homes were pummelled.

“It was just natural for us to open up our home to our neighbours and allow them to come in,” Jorge said. “We’ve known these people for 10 years. They’re our family.

“I’ve been in every one of their homes for lunch or for dinner or Christmas or birthdays,” he added. “We didn’t have to think twice about it.”

Vaughan builder and resident Art Saccoccia, owner of SkyHomes Corporation, heard what the Pestanas were doing and was moved to help.

“It’s a great job that you’re doing here,” he told Jorge Monday as he handed him $1,500 in Fortinos gift cards. “I’m glad somebody’s stepping up from the community.”

Across town, Thornhill was spared the worst of the storm, but the desire to help was evident there, too. Councillor Alan Shefman said that by Friday he was already hearing from people collecting toys and other supplies for the tornado’s victims.

“That goodwill spirit is not only happening in the streets of Maple and Woodbridge, . . . it’s happening across the city,” he said. “The real sort of heart of a community is when people, even people who aren’t affected, step forward and say, ‘Can I help?’ ”

In print: August 28, 2009, page 1.

Vaughan Today
In print: August 28, 2009, page 1
Online: August 27, 2009 [link]