Hurricane Hazel Personal Accounts

She was no lady... Hurricane Hazel, by Wallace Rombough

Friday, October 15, 1954 began as just another rainy day. It had been an October no different from others in the past, with fall flowers in bloom and the grass still green. But it had also been wetter, with more rain than usual.

I had always visualized a hurricane as a storm, with palm trees bending almost to the ground, waves lashing the seashore and torrents of rain, but the reality was a day with high winds, ditches along the roadside were full, drains were backing up and shingles had blown off some roofs. I worked at the Weston Police Department that day and left for home shortly after 4:00 in the afternoon.

On Saturday, October 16, about 2:00 a.m., there was a knock on our door and I answered it to be met by Lew Everist (now deceased), at that time a constable with the Weston Police, who informed me that the Humber River had overflowed its banks, the houses were being washed away and people were drowning. At first, I thought he had taken leave of his senses, but he soon convinced me that this was a real disaster. I dressed in warm clothing, including a pair of rubber hip boots that I used when trapping muskrats along the Humber River, and headed for the Weston Police Station.

The main street of Weston was a scene of great activity—I seem to remember that electric power was off and Coleman and kerosene lamps were being used to provide light in the station. To complicate matters further, Chief Webster was involved in the investigation of a fatal motor vehicle accident, which had occurred earlier in the evening.

In company with another of our police officers, I visited several areas to see what could be done. At the Lawrence Avenue bridge, which had the approach washed out on the Weston side, I spoke with a radio man recording the sounds of the flood and resulting disaster. All traffic was cut off between Weston and Etobicoke. Later we drove north on Weston Road to where the Albion Road crosses the Humber River. The river was washing over the bridge and a group of people were standing at the eastern approach. CBC television had set up large lights to illuminate the scene. We were told that people were up in the trees and we could see a small boat, hull-side up, lodged in the trees with two people on it. Apparently, the boat had capsized while its occupants were trying to reach the people stranded up in the trees. Another boat, about a 16-footer, with a 25-horsepower engine, was drawn up to our side of the river and there was a discussion as to how to rescue the stranded.

I knew the river and the only way to reach the people on the western side was to first go down the river and then proceed upstream without making a sharp turn, which would probably capsize the boat. I went aboard with the boat's owner, Squadron Leader Cliff, a member of the R.C.A.F. Reserve, stationed at Downsview. Someone handed me a life jacket, which might have been the type used on the Titanic—the old square cut-style, stuffed with cork.

We moved out into the river which was cold and about the colour of coffee with cream. Although it was a pitch black night, the CBC television lights illuminated the scene. After going downstream, we gradually turned into the current and got into the trees, where we found a man and woman clinging to separate trees. As we approached, the woman panicked and jumped into the water just before we reached her. She went under but popped up like a cork and I was able to grab her by the hair and pull her into the boat. The man remained calm and was able to step into the boat, without getting wet. Apparently, they were marooned when their car was swept off Albion Road. We took them to the eastern shore and returned to the western shore to attempt the rescue of the two men on the upturned boat. As we were working our way up between the trees, the propeller struck something and sheared a pin. I grabbed a tree to stop us from floating down the river and Squadron Leader Cliff, ever calm and cool, pulled up the motor and, with the aid of a flashlight, we were able to put in a new pin he had in his tool box.

We finally worked our way up river by pulling on the trees and were able to rescue the two young men from their overturned boat, which we had to leave behind for the time being. We then decided to check the western shore further where we met (if I remember correctly) Albert Bunn and Dave Mullett of the North York Police Force.

Towards daybreak, we embarked in Squadron Leader Cliff's boat and started searching farther north, on the west side of the river. There were several summer cottages along the river bank at the edge of the Summerlea Golf Course (now named Humber Valley) and, as they were used as year-round homes, we decided to check them out. We found a family that had been forced into the attic of one of these and had kicked the boards from the side of the house in order to escape. It was easy to draw the boat up to the attic and rescue them. I remember checking a small barn or shed, semi-afloat near the cottage. Inside was a horse quietly treading water. We felt it best to leave the horse alone as it seemed in no danger of drowning and the barn was not going to be swept into the main stream.

By this time, it was broad daylight and we decided to head for home and some much needed sleep, as there seemed little more to be done.

Saturday was a calm day, the sun came out and the river started to recede. Many people had slept through the night and were surprised by the news of the disaster.

On Sunday morning, I met Squadron Leader Cliff at the Downsview Air Force base and, after receiving brief instruction as to what to do if we had to bail out, we took off in a Harvard Trainer, with the intention of looking for bodies and other signs of the disaster along the Humber River. We flew along the Humber River and its tributaries and over the Holland Marsh, which was inundated when the floodwaters came over the dykes and flooded the farm land. Ontario Hydro later brought in large pumps to drain the flooded market gardens. Our search was to little avail and we later returned to the air base.

Later that day I was in Ward's Funeral Home and saw some of the victims of the flood being washed with a hose to remove the sand and mud. It was a pitiful sight!

I don't know how today's society would handle a disaster of this magnitude in Metropolitan Toronto, but as far as I am aware there was little, if any, looting. It seemed to bring out the best in humanity. The R.C.M.P., R.C.A.F., Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, Red Cross, ham radio operators, police and fire departments, and many ordinary citizens gave their time, money, even homes and clothing to aid those devastated by the flood.

After these events, I never met Squadron Leader Cliff again, nor did I ever learn the names of the people we rescued, except a young man by the name of Williamson, whom I had known previously.

This article was published in its entirety in News and View, the official publication of The Metropolitan Toronto Police Association. Wallace Rombough; former member of the Weston Police Department.
Copyright © 1989 The Metropolitan Toronto Police Association

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