Operations were winding down for the day at Laidlaw Waste Management Systems in Edmonton, Alberta, and Don Hughes, a high councilor in the Edmonton Alberta Millwoods Stake, was sitting at his desk thinking about leaving for home a bit early.
It was about 3:30 on the afternoon of 31 July 1987, during the hottest week many Edmontonians could remember for a long time. It had been uncharacteristically humid. The evening before, a huge cloud mass that looked like a movie special effect had moved across Edmonton.
Brother Hughes’ wife had stopped by a little earlier and had suggested that he leave then.
“I had this feeling that I wanted to go home, but I had a stronger feeling that said, ‘Stay. You have some things to do here,’” he recalls. “I didn’t know what I had left to finish, but I listened to the prompting and stayed. I told my wife I’d come home soon.”
Shortly afterward, the power went out. One of the seven people in the office, looking out the window, pointed out a funnel cloud coming from the south. “As soon as I saw it,” Brother Hughes says, “it was as though the Spirit said to me, ‘That is going to come right through this place. You’ve got to get these people ready.’”
Brother Hughes told his co-workers to keep an eye on the approaching storm; then he went into the back area. The dozen or so workers there were also watching the storm develop. It grew bigger by the second. The funnel was clearly moving toward them.
Brother Hughes remembered that a friend who used to live in Texas told him that if a tornado ever hit his area to get to a sturdy, protected spot. “I told the men to get to the parts room. It had concrete block walls and was in a central part of the facility. But I could tell that no one was paying much attention to me.”
He raced to the front office and saw the funnel ready to touch down. It made contact in a lumberyard, which rapidly disappeared. The tornado filled the whole sky. Sounding like a huge freight train, it sucked piles of wood into its blackness, along with vehicles, sheds, and machinery.
“I told all the office staff to get to the lunchroom right away and stay there until the storm was over. I watched until everyone was clear, then went to the back,” Brother Hughes says. “The building south of us was crumbling in the storm. One fellow was taking a picture, but the rest looked nervous. They were shifting around, wondering where they could go.”
Again, he directed them to the parts room, but they still hesitated. “Then I shouted louder and stronger than I knew I could. I felt it was the Spirit working, telling them to ‘Move, now!’ It seemed to clear their minds.” They moved as a group to the parts room.
When he was sure his co-workers were safe, Brother Hughes started running to the front of the building. The twister had already destroyed the trucking company across the freeway and was gaining on Brother Hughes as he ran.
Windows started blowing out in the Laidlaw building. “The noise was like shotguns going off—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. I could hear them breaking and exploding.”
Ducking into a washroom for shelter, he slammed the door shut and braced himself between a partition and toilet, hoping everyone else in the building was safe.
“I felt more than heard the storm get louder outside. It roared like a train or a jet engine, rumbling with a high-pitched moan.
“I did a lot of praying quickly. I prayed for the people who were there with me. I prayed for my family and the families of those who were there, that they would be watched over and protected. I prayed and hoped it was the Lord’s will that I would survive, but said I was ready to face him if that were meant to be.”
As he was praying, the building—sheet steel on a steel frame—blew apart. Outside, semitrailer tractors, steel vaults, massive air compressors, and industrial garbage containers were tossed around like toys. A wall of the bathroom fell in, pinning Brother Hughes down, but sheltering him at the same time. When he opened his eyes and looked up where the ceiling had been, the horrible black cloud was over his head. He was terrified that it might touch down again, but the twister took off up the highway.
Brother Hughes crawled out of his shelter and forced the battered door open to escape from the washroom. “I expected to see part of the building damaged, but there was nothing left intact. It was as though someone had flattened things with a big mallet.”
The husband of one of the women from the front office had arrived just before the destruction, and had found shelter nearby. The two men ran to where the lunchroom walls had caved in on top of each other, forming a mound of debris. Climbing to the top, they were relieved to find the office staff safely huddled in a corner where two walls had formed a lean-to type of haven.
Brother Hughes and his companion then made their way to where the parts room had been. They found four or five of the men there already out from under the rubble. The group used their bare hands to pull twisted steel and concrete blocks off the debris that had sheltered the rest of their co-workers. Then the men formed a human chain to pull the front office staff out of the wreckage at the other end of the building. During the destruction, only one person had suffered any lasting damage—a back injury. When an emergency rescue team arrived, they found the Laidlaw workers using one of the company’s large garbage containers for protection from the baseball-size hail that fell following the twister.
The tornado wreaked more destruction than had ever been seen before in Edmonton. Only the areas in their building where Brother Hughes and his co-workers had huddled for safety could have saved them from death. Elsewhere in the Edmonton area, twenty-seven people died. The tornado did more than a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of damage.
Standing on a slope overlooking the mangled Laidlaw buildings, Don Hughes reflected on what might have happened. “It’s a miracle that none of our workers was killed. When I look at the total devastation, it’s almost as if the Lord put out his hands and made a protective shelter for us.”