This Was the Worst Tornado in Canada’s History

The terrifying "Black Friday Tornado" swept through Edmonton on July 31, 1987, leaving 27 dead and 600 injured.

For Edmontonians, July 31, 1987, will always be remembered as “Black Friday.”

Around 3 p.m. that day, a dark funnel cloud touched down in southeast Edmonton. As it cut a 37-kilometre swath of destruction through the eastern part of the city, eyewitnesses described a roaring sound “like a freight train” as 400 kilometre-per-hour winds exploded buildings and tossed cars around like toys.

By the time the tornado dissipated an hour later—more than ten times the average duration of a tornado—it had left 27 people dead, 600 injured, 300 homes destroyed, and $181 million in damage ($375 million in today’s Canadian dollars). Rated an F4 on the Fujita scale—the second most powerful category of twister on record—the Black Friday Tornado wasn’t the only freak weather incident in Edmonton that week. Over the three preceding days, more than 300 mm of rain flooded the region, causing four major rivers to rise by as much as eight metres. Tennis ball-sized hailstones pelted the western part of the city, knocking two people unconscious and setting an Alberta record for hailstone diameter.

That Friday afternoon, traffic had already begun piling up on the Sherwood Park Freeway ahead of a long weekend. With a tornado alert broadcast on radio just minutes before, drivers had no time to escape before the twister rolled over them. “I got out of my car to help people and got thrown 30 feet into a field,” Dale Campbell told a TV reporter. “We picked up bodies…and took them to the ambulances on the freeway.”

The areas of Clareview, Strathcona Industrial Park and the Evergreen mobile home park were the hardest hit. “It was like a giant took a big spade, dug in, and turned the place upside down,” said machine shop worker Glen Petruk. Families described hiding in their basements, where concrete foundations provided the most reliable shelter, listening to the sounds of their houses being torn apart above.

Amid the death and destruction, stories of miraculous survival emerged. A tiny one-week-old baby girl was ripped from her grandfather’s arms by the extreme winds at the Evergreen mobile home park. While her family frantically searched for her, an unknown stranger found baby Kristen alive and turned her in to police, who rushed her to a hospital where she recovered and was reunited with her mother.

The devastation wreaked by the Black Friday Tornado—the worst in Canada’s history—can still be felt. For years afterward, traumatized survivors recalled hiding at every rumble of thunder. But the tornado also sparked an overhaul of the province’s disaster warning and response system, leading to the creation of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency in 1988, which co-ordinates resources for more than 50 types of natural and man-made disasters.

Next, find out why Calgary is the hailstorm capital of Canada.