Hurricane Hazel Personal Accounts

Kingsway-Lambton Firemen

Five firefighters from the Kingsway-Lambton Fire Station were killed when they went to rescue people stranded in a car by floodwaters on the Humber. The fire truck the men were driving became stuck on a flooded street and overturned, tossing the men into the water. Five of the nine men on board died: Angus Small, Dave Palmateer, Frank Mercer, Tiny Clarence Collins and Roy Oliver. Marsh Palmateer, Jack Philips, Jim Britton and Bill Bell survived and related the sequence of events that killed their comrades.

The third call of the night sent them to Humber Boulevard, located parallel to the river between Dundas and Bloor streets. When they began down the street, the pavement was dry, however, it soon rose to above the wheels. Frank Mercer had missed the truck, so he was following in his car. When the men in the truck decided to turn back, the car had stalled and the fire truck could not move it.

Philips said, "We didn't realize there was any danger on the river road. The road was just a little bit damp near the falls, but there was quite a bit of water on the road a mile south of Dundas Street. We didn't know if we could get through to Bloor Street, so we decided to back down there.

"Frank Mercer followed us down in his own car, but when we tried to back up, we couldn't get clear of his car. All of a sudden, the water started to rise fast. The current became so strong that we were unable to turn the truck's wheels. We decided then and there we were just going to have to wait it out. We didn't think we had anything to worry about—the river was at its peak—but it was just starting, just starting."

The truck seemed more stable than the car carrying the extra man, so the men on the truck decided to pull Mercer to the truck through the water. Palmateer said, "I threw the rope in and he (Mercer) grabbed it. I told him to jump out and we would pull him to safety, but he seemed afraid. The water was getting near the top of the car, so I had to pull. Mercer came out of the auto all right, but must have let go of the rope. He was washed away. We couldn't grab him."

"We kept the motor running as long as we could radio for help. In the darkness, we could just see and hear the chief and others on the bank trying to help us.

"Finally, the truck rolled over, I think the road washed out from under us because it was standing parallel with the current. The short time we were there, the river rose five feet. I was born right here and I have never seen the river like it.

"At one time, we could have walked away from the truck, but we didn't think we were in any danger," Philips said.

"When the road washed out, three of us hung on to the side of the truck when it rolled over," Palmateer said.

Toronto Daily Star, Saturday, October 16, 1954

Years later, Jim Britton related his story to reporters:

"There was supposed to be two people trapped on the roof of a car down the Humber Road. Eight of us got on the truck and drove down there.

"We couldn't find the car or any people in trouble, so we started to turn around. One of the firemen had missed the truck and drove down behind us in his own car. He got out and climbed on the truck.

"Then this wall of water came from nowhere. We didn't see it; we couldn't even hear it. It picked the fireman's car up and smashed it into the truck. Then it drove into a tree. The water started to climb the side of the truck. We radioed for help. Police and firemen came down the bank, but couldn't reach us with ropes.

"We handed out whatever would float to the non-swimmers, then shook hands all around. God, they were brave. No panic, no hysteria, nothing.

"When the water hit the hose, it took off like a snake. Without the hose, the truck had no weight. We began to float, then we tipped. I dove out as far as I could. My windbreaker had tight cuffs and filled with air, acting like a life-preserver. Somehow or other, the truck's lights stayed on. I could see it tumbling over and over as it went down the river. I couldn't swim, couldn't kick or do anything in that current."

Toronto Daily Star, October 15, 1964

"I was on my back, going downstream head first. All of a sudden, something hit me in the face. I grabbed for it and spun right around, and I found myself around a big tree. I didn't know how far I'd be from shore, but between me and the shore was like… well, I keep saying Niagara Falls. No way I'm going to let go… I'm on this beautiful big tree… I'm sitting up there and I'm hanging on. I'm above the water at this point. And all of a sudden I hear moaning. And here's this guy… he's hanging onto a little sapling. His head's just above water." (Frank Mercer, volunteer fireman, was the man.)

"Frank, for God's sake, give me your foot. Get your foot up here and I'll grab it. And he just got a funny look on his face and went down the tree like this and… ahh. He's gone."

"A policeman threw me a rope, and I don't remember hitting shore because they just gave one yank and I didn't go through the water… I went straight through the air. Boom."

Toronto Star, March 20, 1983

During the clean-up after the flood, the truck was discovered a distance from where it was lost, and was very badly damaged.

Bryan Mitchell was a volunteer fireman during Hurricane Hazel. He eventually became the chief of Etobicoke Fire Services. Mitchell hung the axe from the lost fire truck on his office wall. Commenting on the lost firemen he said, "We'd all grown up around here and we knew the river. The boys got out and went to sit on top of the truck. They figured they'd just wait it out.

"It was so hard to believe that they were all gone. I'd been with them just a few hours earlier. This was like a small town back then. We all grew up together, ran fires together."

Toronto Star, October 14, 1984

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