Violent and deadly F4 tornado flattens Barrie suburb, kills 8, injures scores
At 4:52 on the evening of May 31, the fifth and final tornado produced by the “northern supercell” touched down just 6km southwest of downtown Barrie, along Essa-Barrie Townline. The tornado almost instantly attained violent characteristics, cutting a house in half, spraying its debris, and demolishing a nearby barn.
It then cut through a bush lot and nearby tree plantation along Ardagh Road, snapping the uniform pines as little as 2 meters off the ground. As it progressed to the north side of Ardagh Road moving ENE, the tornado increased in width to 600m and surged in strength. Witnesses in the immediate area described seeing whole trees being uprooted and shot through the air like missiles.
Ripping through a bushy area on the edge of town, it took aim directly for the neighborhood surrounding Patterson Road. The vortex engulfed the entire block of small houses running up Crawford Street, Patterson Road, and Moon Drive. Nearly every structure was flattened along its path, leaving behind a sobering scene of cut up and twisted wreckage where two women and three children sadly lost their lives.
Just east of Moon Drive, the tornado next struck the industrial park on Morrow Road. Here it completely destroyed twelve factories and commercial buildings while leaving four others damaged on its periphery. At one of the businesses, a twenty-seven-year-old employee was blown 300m from the collapsing structure to a field near highway 400 where he was found dead, being the tornado’s 6th casualty.
Crossing Highway 400 on the north side of the Essa Road interchange, the tornado tossed vehicles like toys and hurled debris from the now-gutted factories wrapping them around nearby fences, light standards and guard-rails. Miraculously, only minor injuries were reported along the highway.
On the east side of the highway, the tornado passed over the south side of the Barrie Raceway, a local horse racing venue. It completely wiped out several occupied barns, stables, and outbuildings and ripped the roof off the main building and grandstand. On the northeast side of the property, the Barrie Curling Club building also sustained roof damage. In an adjacent parking lot, another twenty-seven-year-old man was blown out of his car and thrown. He was found by rescuers afterward barely clinging to life. Although immediately rushed to Sunnybrook Hospital in North Toronto, he succumbed to his injuries. Fifteen others were injured to varying degrees on the property.
As the tornado blasted across Essa Road it unleashed its fury on the businesses and office buildings lining the route. This included a realtor office, two motels, a car dealership, and a two-story government building. All of these structures sustained severe damage along with 17 cars at the dealership.
Along this same stretch of road, a young man who was driving in his van also encountered the tornado, which was fully rain-wrapped and difficult to recognize at close range. The vortex sucked him out of his seat and flung him across the road, where he came to rest along a chain link fence. Amazingly he survived but not without serious injuries. He was given only a 1% chance of survival, but doctors and medics managed to save his life.
Plowing its way east into the residential community of Allendale Heights, the tornado smashed through a townhouse complex on Adelaide Street, ripping off its roofs and most of the upper floors. Some units had nearly collapsed altogether. As well, immediately south of the townhouses on Debra Crescent, several residences were inundated by tornado’s extreme power, with many reduced to a tattered mess of broken up rafters, drywall, and other building materials. Others appeared to be twisted off their foundations with vehicles overturned in their driveways.
Innisfil Street was next in the tornado’s path. St John Vianney Catholic School located across the street from the now ruined townhouses had its west wing badly damaged. Half of its roof was torn off leaving classrooms exposed. Further east along the street, the majority of houses had their entire upper floors sheared off, broken up and scattered throughout the neighborhood. Their terrified occupants, hearing the intense roar of the storm, scrambled to take shelter.
Crossing Marshall Street, the center of the tornado passed between Murray Street and the west end of Innisfil Street. Here the tornado unleashed its violence again on the bulk of dwellings lining the normally quiet cul-de-sac, with some being completely destroyed.
The tornado then crossed Bayview Drive north near the intersection of Springhome Road. Significant structural damage occurred to a number of homes as it whipped by. Many losing their entire roofs as if chopped off with a giant scythe. Tower Crescent, Glen Court, Woodcrest Road, and Greenfield Avenue all suffered similar damage with neighboring Greenfield Park peppered with building fragments.
Nearing Briar Road, the tornado went through a very brief weakened phase, narrowing to about 80m and causing only light damage. This was short-short lived though as it progressed to the new Trillium Crescent subdivision. At this location, recently built homes were wiped off the map as the tornado showed its strength again. Along the brand-new Autumn Lane, houses were swept away, with only a trail of wreckage remaining where they stood only moments earlier.
On the west side of Highway 11, a secondary disaster was narrowly avoided as the tornado took out four warehouses lining the road. One of these properties was home to a propane distributor who had large filled tanks on site. As the tornado struck, it threw a school bus onto the property, where it landed between two of the tanks. After the tornado, local fire officials stated that were the bus to have punctured the tanks, it would have caused a massive explosion, potentially killing hundreds. This miraculously did not occur as the tornado continued east across Highway 11 into a wooded area where a 100m wide swath of trees was flattened.
As the tornado roared over Hurst Drive near the intersection of Tollendal Mill Road it would claim it’s final victim. Trying to seek shelter from the storm, a nine-year-old boy was biking back from the Brentwood Marine dock to his Autumn Lane home when he unknowingly drove into the tornado’s path. Sadly, a sharp piece of debris struck his neck and he died.
The tornado’s fury continued through an area of thick pine forest and upscale subdivision of Tollendal on the shore of Kempenfelt Bay. The heavy trees were flattened but only moderate damage to property took place to residences around Royal Oak Drive as the homes were well-built. At the east end of Royal Oak, the Minet’s Point Marina was the last place the tornado would strike. As many as 35 boats with their concrete anchors were blown away never to be seen again according to police reports. Other boats along with anything left exposed was whipped up into a jumbled mess along the docks. As the tornado continued east-northeast over Kempenfelt Bay, one witness described seeing a black and purple cone-shaped funnel cloud out over the water. It would then dissipate mysteriously somewhere over Lake Simcoe. In the days following, a pilot flying over the Lake would report pieces of debris floating nearly 20km out in the water.
It was all over in about ten minutes but the infamous “Barrie tornado” as it would now be called, left a long-lasting impression on those who witnessed its incredible destruction. In the days after, scientists and researchers would ultimately give the tornado an F4 rating based on the brutal destruction and violence exhibited upon buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure. A total of 155 people were reported with serious injuries, many needing hospitalizations. With the eight fatalities reported, the tornado would also go into the record books as the third deadliest tornado in Ontario and the seventh deadliest in Canada.
As many as 605 houses were severely damaged, at least 240 deemed uninhabitable. It would list as one of the costliest natural disasters ever in Canada totaling $117M.
With many businesses destroyed, there were also consequences for the local economy which was already facing a recession.