I couldn’t leave this post just as it was originally written, although it was a heartfelt response after a very traumatic experience. I’m clumsy with words and even when I think I am writing clearly, there is always the reader who doesn’t know my heart or doesn’t hear the words the way they were intended. After visiting Pines Bible Camp yesterday, with my daughter, and hearing about the rescue attempts, and the people who dodged the falling trees, heedless for their own safety, to try to rescue others, and seeing the devastation for myself, not just carefully censored pictures, I have attempted to rewrite my article. Please forgive the awkwardness of my words. Words cannot adequately express the shattering experience so many are walking through right now. Words of continuing faith in the sovereignty and goodness of God, can seem callous to those who have lost so much. But still this is my daughter’s story. (Revised July 24, 2012 11pm)
Last Friday in the Boundary, where I live, started sunny with cloudy periods. Spirits were high at Pines Bible Camp and Retreat Centre, locally just called “Pines,” where my daughter Sarah was working for the summer as a Senior Cabin Leader. It was the last day of camp number 4. The night before, Karen, had posted on the Pines’ Facebook Page, “We are coming to the end of Camp 4. Pray that we stay safe and have a great last day.” Many of the 75 campers at camp number 4 experienced a joyful, safe, and exhilarating camp. The theme of the camp was “being transformed” and the speaker, Jonathan Christian, emphasized that super heroes were just ordinary people, used by God to transform their world. Little did these young people and their leaders know, that they were about to witness an awesome transformation, and see the providence of God in the midst of an unprecedented disaster.
At 4:30pm storm clouds began to form above the camp. Seeing the clouds forming, Sarah started moving her cabin charges from the beach, on the Granby River, back toward the cabins. It was the last night of camp and a formal banquet was planned to celebrate the ending of the camp week. All the 10 to 12 years old girls planned to get dressed up for the event and the boys had plans to play with hair gel.
Jake, the assistant cook, while usually just on time with the meals, had prepared the dinner of ham, scallop potatoes, and green beans, ahead of schedule and was waiting for the campers to arrive in their best clothes for the special celebration that he and head cook Stephen had prepared.
Dan, one of the camp maintenance personnel, was working on a van in the parking lot, at 5pm, and glanced toward the cabins, just as the tornado whirled through the tops of the pine trees. Crack!
Sarah’s charges had walked ahead of her back to the cabin, and Sarah was walking quickly to catch up, just as the first tree crashed 100 yards away, on the fire road, just missing a camp pickup truck. Simultaneously a second tree crashed on the other side of the truck, and another tree hit the dining hall roof. There was no wind on the ground. But the wind cut through the tree tops like they were match sticks. Sarah ran to the shelter of cabin 12 and then dashed between the cabins, to cabin 11, where her own campers were gathered.
Dan heard the wind and saw the trees snapping off. First he was angry. There was going to be one big mess to clean up. Then he realized there were people right where the trees were falling and he couldn’t get to them. He started to pray. The trees boomed and crashed down around the cabins.
Sarah assessed the situation in the cabin. 7 girls were present and the junior cabin leader was there. The other senior cabin leader was missing, though. Trees continued to fall. Sarah calmed her girls, talking soothingly to them, reminding them of God’s faithfulness, and protection. She prayed out loud and the girls calmed. The door opened and Deanna, the other cabin leader came to help.
Three cabin leaders were still at the beach with their campers when the trees started falling. They remained in the lower field, safe for the moment, waiting for a lull when they could move their campers to the upper field, where during staff training, they had practised fire evacuation drills.
Some girls were in the washroom, with their cabin leaders, showering, putting on nail polish, and prettying their hair for the banquet. Suddenly, Tiffany, the cabin leader, felt an inner warning and hurried the girls to dress and get out of the building. They got to safety just as a tree crashed on the roof ridge of the washroom. Tiffany stopped short and screamed as she exited the washroom. Cabin 2, where her brother was junior counsellor, was flattened completely. Where was Ben? Was anyone hurt?
Sarah Y. led her campers from their cabin, while the trees continued falling. She was moving them toward the upper field, through the falling trees. Suddenly she stopped. A tree fell immediately in front of her. Undaunted she lept over the tree and led her campers to the dining hall, where Steven was waving to her, and safety.
Travis, the camp video guy, was excited as the trees began to fall. A storm chaser at heart, Travis filmed the falling trees, while dodging the trees as they fell. In his enthusiasm he endured a slashed knee, but continued his quest to film the historic storm.
Back in cabin 11, Sarah and her fellow cabin leaders pushed 3 bunk beds into the centre of the room to form a secondary roof and offer the possibility of triangles of safety, should the trees damage the cabin’s stability. Another crash, a tree fell on the porch roof. The girls in her cabin started screaming and sobbing. Deanna, Sarah, and Jenn continued to reassure the girls. The crashing was replaced by the light patter of rain on the roof.
Around 4:45pm, on July 21, 2012, a tornado went through Pines Bible Camp, 10 km North of the rural community of Grand Forks, BC, Canada. The tornado worked in the upper storey of the trees, ripping out or sheering off 300 trees in 20 minutes. Campers and staff were moving between the beach and their cabins, getting ready for a dinner banquet when the storm hit, without warning. In those 20 minutes the landscape transformed.
Tim Martens, whose dad, Pastor Martens, founded Pines Bible Camp 50 years before, witnessed the disaster taking place across the road from his home. Power was out, as the wind brought trees down on the powerlines along North Fork Road, and littered the roadway with logs and branches. He was helpless, as he watched the trees snap like kindling.
Getting to safety
About 5 minutes later, Richard Friesen, the standing camp director, came to the door of cabin 11, pale and shaken. “Everybody grab shoes, we’re doing what we practised. We’re evacuating to the field. Let’s go, go, go.” Sarah’s cabin joined 2 other cabins, moving together through the debris, scrambling under and over downed trees to reach the field. Every child was accounted for and all cabin leaders were present. Tiffany’s brother Ben was here with most of his cabin.
Meanwhile, the camp power was out. Buildings with telephones were inaccessible because of fallen trees. Dan’s phone in his mobile home, in the staff housing compound, had been working only sporadically during the week. Miraculously, after the storm, it was working perfectly. 911 was called. The campers and staff moved from the field to the gym, that was slightly damaged from fallen trees. Campers received towels and blankets to get dry and keep warm. The staff led the campers in prayer and songs of confidence in the providence and care of God, while they waited.
5 Ambulances, Search and Rescue, 3 police cars, and a fire truck arrived at Ground Zero. The paramedics treated the campers and staff for minor injuries, scrapes, asthma-panic, including Travis’ slashed knee.
Simultaneously, Community Search and Rescue cleared some of the trees to create a path from the gym to the dining hall. The power was out, and emergency generators were providing light in the dining hall. The campers, still shaken, had their dinner, more subdued than usual. One camper was noticeably missing. A medivac helicopter was seen over the camp during the meal. Sarah’s campers were worried that they would miss dessert because of the storm. But faithfully, Steven presented a pound cake with chocolate icing, for their comfort.
Community Response to Police scanners
Meanwhile the community heard rumours that there was a fatality at Pines. And people started reaching out to other communities asking for prayer. I posted the need on the Joybilee Farm Facebook Page, and you responded immediately with assurances that you would not only personally pray for the campers and cabin leaders at Pines, but you would pass the prayer request on to your church community.
Within 2 hours, this message was posted on the Pines Facebook wall:
“The camp experienced a massive wind storm late this afternoon. All campers and staff are accounted for. The situation is still under assessment. All have been evacuated to Gospel Fellowship in Grand Forks. Please keep us all in your prayers.”
Sarah called home at 9pm, to tell us that she was at Gospel Chapel and that everyone was safe. She said that there had been a fatality. Grief counsellors and Pastor Henry were there at Gospel Chapel to help the campers and staff process the tragedy. The church set up an evacuation centre in the gym for the night.
There were many reports of miraculous protection as campers and staff moved through the still falling trees to reach the safety of the field. 11 year old, Richard was killed in cabin 2, at the beginning of the storm. The cabin leader, who was with the lad in the cabin, stepped to the doorway, talking to the young man to reassure him during the storm. He heard a crack, and the force of the tree falling on the roof of the cabin, pushed him away from the cabin, and saved his life. The huge weight of grief that Richard’s death brought to everyone, dimmed the miraculous provision of safety that others experienced. There were 105 campers and 55 staff and cabin leaders at this camp, and only minor scraps, and bruises during the ordeal, except for Richard. A fund was set up to help Richard’s family in this time of mourning. The community responded with heart-felt generosity.
The cabin that was crushed was the cabin that Sarah was in, her first week at camp this year. All the staff and campers can testify to the saving grace of God and his providential protection during the storm, personally. The staff were heroes, getting all the children to safety and keeping them from panic, even in the middle of the storm. It was a miracle that there weren’t many more deaths, broken bones, and permanent injuries. God protected them as they evacuated.
The insurance adjuster, who came out on Saturday to survey the damage, said that in his 48 years he had never seen a disaster like this before.
Pines was closed for the rest of the summer and a restoration fund was set up on the Pines website for people to donate to for the rebuilding. In the meantime, all full time staff took a few days to process the pain and pray about the future. While the insurance will cover removing the trees that are actually on buildings and repairing the buildings, the restoration of the rest of the grounds were on the shoulders of the camp. Only buildings are insured not the grounds. Mennonite Disaster relief came on the campus two weeks later, and provided heavy equipment and manpower to clear the fallen trees, remove other trees that were dangerous due to the storm, and seed the ground to a grassy field.
Pines value to the community
The camp is used by the whole community not just the churches. The public schools use the camp for nature and science field days. The private schools and homeschool students also hold events on the grounds year round. And other church groups use the camp facilities to hold their own camps — including groups from the Okanagan and the Kootenays. It is a very important resource for the youth and children of the whole area. In its 50 years, many community leaders have been influenced by time spent at Pines. Sarah’s dad Robin (Mr. Joybilee), was a cabin leader at Pines in 1978.
These pictures are used by permission of ©Jonathan Christian and Sarah Dalziel.