FALCON LAKE - Campers who were startled in the middle of the night by an unexplained "weather event" that took the life of a Quebec man shared one overwhelming emotion: Disbelief.
The tragic incident occurred early Wednesday morning when a thick spruce tree – about 12 inches at the base – was uprooted by a strong gust of wind and crashed on a small tent containing a couple from Quebec, who had entered the Falcon Lake Provincial Park beach campground only hours before. A 45-year-old man was killed and a 44-year-old woman was transported to Pinawa hospital and treated for minor injuries.
"It could have been any of us, really," said Irma Peters, who along with husband Sieg had their RV parked about 30 metres from the scene of the accident. "It’s unbelievable. We were so close. We’ve been considering how lucky we are."
Geoff Smith, regional field supervisor for Manitoba Conservation, called the incident a "one-in-a-million event."
"In my 25 years I’ve never heard of this happening before," Smith said. "It’s the only death I’m aware of."
Witnesses said that all was calm in the park until sometime after 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Then Curt and Elsie Loewen, parked about 20 metres away, heard a violent crash.
"It sounded like a big truck coming at you, like being close to a train track," said Curt, a Steinbach-area farmer.
The couple shot out of their RV into the pitch darkness – the storm had cut power in the area – after a neighbour came over frantically urging Elsie, a retired nurse, to call 911.
By the time the Loewens arrived at the scene, other campers had gathered around the commotion, some carrying flashlights.
"The tree was right across the tent," Elsie said. "All I could see was an arm. There was absolutely nothing you could do. That tree was so big. Totally helpless. You couldn’t do CPR or anything."
Campers tried in vain to lift the tree. Elsie, meanwhile, attempted to console the distraught woman who had been with the man in the tent, but had trouble because she spoke only a few words in English.
Local EMS and volunteer firefighters arrived within minutes, witnesses said. Once the tree was sawed into pieces, the man was transported by ambulance to hospital.
"The lady was glued to that tent, walking back and forth," Elsie said. "I just tried to comfort her because we couldn’t communicate.
One other tree, a few metres away, was sheared off by wind about 20 feet from the top, landing at the steps of a nearby camper.
Gerry Klassen was also awoken by the gust of wind.
"We looked outside and all we could see were flashlights," Klassen said. "We thought, ‘Oh, my word’. We thought it was a bear. All of a sudden more lights and chain saws came."
Klassen remembered the Quebecers pulling into the campground on a three-wheeled motorcycle, with their gear in a small trailer.
"We had seen them (the campers) in the afternoon and gave them a thumbs up," he said. "It’s bizarre. It’s a real eerie feeling in the morning. How can this all happen 100 feet from you?"