Work was coming to an end for the day at Laidlaw Waste Management Systems in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and Don Hughes, a high councilor in the Edmonton Alberta Millwoods Stake, was sitting at his desk thinking about leaving for home a little earlier than usual.
It was about 3:30 on the afternoon of 31 July 1987, during the hottest week many residents of Edmonton could remember for a long time. It had been unusually humid. The evening before, a strange cloud mass had moved across the city, looking almost like a special visual effect made for a movie.
Brother Hughes’ wife had visited him a little earlier in the day and had suggested that he leave the office 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 electricity went out in that part of the city. One of the seven people in the office, looking from the window, pointed out the funnel cloud of a tornado coming from the south. “As soon as I saw it,” Brother Hughes said, “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 watching the approaching storm, then he went into the back area of the building. The twelve or more workers there were also watching the storm develop. It grew bigger by the second. The tornado was clearly moving toward them.
Brother Hughes remembered that a friend who used to live in the United States told him that if a tornado ever came his way, to get to a sturdy, protected spot. “I told the men to get to the spare parts room. It had concrete block walls and was in a central part of the building. But I could tell that no one was really listening to me, they were too busy watching the approaching tornado.”
He ran to the front office and saw the tornado ready to touch down to the ground. It made contact in a nearby lumberyard, which was rapidly sucked up into the cloud. By now 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 had gone, then went to check on the other employees at the rear of the building,” Brother Hughes says. “The building south of us was collapsing in the storm. One of our men was taking a photograph, but the rest of them looked nervous. They were wondering where they could go for safety.”
Again, Brother Hughes directed them to the spare parts room, but they still hesitated.
“Then I shouted instructions to them 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 all quickly went to the spare parts room.
When he was sure his co-workers were safe, Brother Hughes started running to the front of the building. The tornado had already destroyed the trucking company across the highway 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—as they shattered and exploded.”
Running into a small storage room for shelter, he slammed the door shut and braced himself against the wall, hoping everyone else in the building was protected.
“I felt more than heard the storm get louder outside. It roared like a train or a jet engine, a rumbling sound mixed 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 come before him if that was his will.”
As Brother Hughes prayed, the building—sheets of steel on a steel framework—blew apart. Outside, semi-trailer tractors, steel storage vaults, massive air compressors, and industrial garbage containers were tossed around in the air like toys. A wall of the storage room fell in, pushing Brother Hughes to the floor, but sheltering him from other debris. When he opened his eyes and looked up where the ceiling had been, the roaring black cloud was over his head. He was terrified that it might touch down to earth again, but the tornado moved away from the building.
Brother Hughes crawled out of his shelter and forced the battered door open to escape from the storage room. “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 giant mallet.”
The husband of one of the women from the front office had arrived just before the tornado hit, and had found shelter nearby. He and Brother Hughes ran to where the lunchroom walls had caved in on top of each other, forming a mound of debris. Climbing to the top of the mound, the two men were relieved to find the office staff safely together in a corner where two walls had formed a rough shelter.
Brother Hughes and his companion then made their way to where the spare 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 coworkers. Then the men pulled 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 industrial garbage containers for protection from the baseball size hail that fell following the tornado.
The tornado caused more destruction than had ever been seen before in Edmonton. It did more than a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of damage. Twenty-seven people throughout the city were killed.
Standing on a hill overlooking the destroyed Laidlaw buildings, Don Hughes reflected on what might have happened. “It’s a miracle that none of our workers were killed. Only the areas where we went for safety survived to provide any kind of protection. 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.”