Hurricane Hazel Personal Accounts

James Crawford risked his life over and over again…

I was a young police officer, aged twenty three (23) years old at the time of the most memorable night of my life, just recently married and the father of an infant son, James. We shared a dwelling off Calvington Avenue, in the Keele Street and Wilson Avenue vicinity with my older brother Patrick, and his wife and children.

Although I had only been on the police force for about one and a half years, I knew the North York and Weston areas very well and I was very conversant with the potential danger of the Humber River, especially after the recent torrents of heavy rain throughout the entirety of the week preceding the hurricane.

During the early evening of October 15, and having observed the growing ferocity of the escalating storm, I commented strongly to my elder brother to come with me. "We can make heroes of ourselves tonight," I said, intending to go to the area of the Humber River to witness the rise of the flowing waters.

I bid my wife good night, telling her I would be back in a few hours. I was off duty that night, and casually dressed when my brother and I drove westerly in my automobile, heading towards the Humber River areas, to the west of Weston Road and Albion Road.

We hadn't gone very far when we saw that the entire intersection of Jane Street and Wilson Avenue was completely under water. I drove a rather large car in those days, and so we progressed westerly along Wilson Avenue. We had to slow to a crawl to get through the intersection, as the water had risen close to the height of the hood of my car.

We turned into a subdivision bordering on the banks of the Humber River. This was at Dee Avenue and Fairglen Crescent.

We were utterly astounded to see that the river had risen to the point where many houses on the banks of the river were now "water locked" and the tenants could be seen in windows, porches and roofs of many houses and were screaming for help.

Even at this early hour of the night, it was obvious that many people would be completely trapped, regardless of the fact that there was a favourable presence of both uniformed police officers and fire department members. It was obvious that any salvation of these trapped people would have to be by boat.

Even at the early stages of the unbelievable height that the river waters had risen to, efforts by some members of the fire department using a boat with 200 to 300 feet of rope tide to it and three to four firemen aboard were almost swamped when the rope extended to its maximum, almost throwing firemen out of the boat.

Fire trucks were there in numbers, as were police vehicles from the North York township police department, the Weston town police department and the Etobicoke township police force.

Soon, a lone man in a boat with a motorized engine, equipped with a powerful spot light illuminated from a powerful battery in the rear of the boat, came to our shoreline.

The boat was only about a 14-foot, mahogany 'run-a-boat' (cottage-type of a boat), with an outboard engine on the rear that I would have estimated as about a 10 to 15 horsepower.

The boat operator, whom I later learned to be one Herbert Jones of Weston, pulled into the shoreline, which was now lined with firemen and police officers. He shouted for a volunteer to go with him in his boat to try to rescue the tenants of these houses, many of whom were now on the roof of their homes and garages.

I was standing somewhat near the rear of the crowd, along with my brother, and shouted to him, "I'll go with you!" My elder brother commented to me, "You're crazy." I pushed my way to the front of the crowd, and got into the front of the boat.

We then made our way out into the tumultuous waves and currents of the river. Of the one operating the somewhat frail craft from the rear, Jones soon impressed me with his expertise in the lick-lash handling of his boat as we manoeuvred between houses, picking trapped tenants from roof tops, from porches, from garage roofs, and some who had even slid down the sides of their houses on rope-type threads of sheets from bedroom windows and into our boat.

All that time, we bounced about crazily like a small cork, the boat literally at times almost standing on its end, as we got tossed about trying to make our way back to the safety of the shore, with our precious cargo aboard.

It is hard to describe the horrible power of this river, and it seemed crazy to see telephone poles and many other large items whooshing down the river like toys.

We picked many women and children from the rooftops of houses, even while they were breaking free from their foundations. In one rescue trip, we picked up the family from their rooftop position while their house was moving downstream after having left its foundation.

On a trip to yet another house, we found a man, woman and two very young and terrified children on the sloping roof of their home, where the father had chopped a hole in the roof to pull his family through. The mother and two children slid down the steep-sloped roof and into my arms, as the boat rested against their eaves troughs.

This house also started to shake and waver about, and I shouted for the father to jump into our boat or we wouldn't be able to save him. He shouted back that he couldn't because he had an elderly lady still inside, that he had trouble getting her through the hole in the roof that he had chopped (too small).

In any event, I shouted, "We will try to get back for you!", and we left with the woman and children aboard. We made our way back to shore with this family.

We went back to try and rescue the man who was trying to get the elderly lady (Mrs. Hardgrave, aged 74 years, I later learned) through the hole in the roof of the house. When we returned for them we saw that the house had gone down river.

I shone our powerful light onto a large tree that stood where the house had been, and was fortunate enough to see someone clinging to the branches of this large tree. I shouted to Herb Jones, "There they are!", and shone the light on them.

Jones was able to nose the boat in to the large tree branches and I found the terrible old lady, clinging for dear life onto a large tree branch, but she would not let go. I had to reach under her, and snag the tree branch and put my hand under her bottom and haul her into the boat. I then followed the same ritual with the now terrified man and hauled him into the boat. We then made our way back to the shoreline with our human cargo.

Jones and I had spent some three or four hours on this rescue mission, and then we parted company, never to see each other again for many years.

In total, I would guess that we made about fifteen trips back and forth out into the Humber River, and brought back maybe fifty people. Life went on with me remaining a police officer for the next thirty eight (38) years. Herb Jones retired to his home in Wasaga Beach.

I wish to stress the involvement of my now deceased partner, Herb Jones, of that night. Had it not been for his extreme expertise in the handling of his worthy craft, and his true spirit in our teamwork, neither one of us would have made it through that night.

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