Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tragedy unnerves campers

Wind topples tree on Quebec couple's tent, killing man

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A tree fell on top of and killed a tent camper from Quebec  at Falcon Lake Campground. June 26, 2013

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A tree fell on top of and killed a tent camper from Quebec at Falcon Lake Campground. June 26, 2013 Photo Store

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 reaction: disbelief.

The tragic incident occurred early Wednesday morning when a thick spruce tree about 30 centimetres at the base was uprooted by a strong gust of wind. It 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 women was transported to Pinawa hospital and treated for minor injuries.

The couple, who arrived Tuesday afternoon, were seen talking, eating and laughing that evening and "enjoying their trip," said camper Elsie Loewen, who was with her husband, Curt, in a nearby RV.

Witnesses said all was calm in the park until sometime after 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. Then the Loewens, 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.

Campers said what appeared to be an isolated storm "came out of nowhere" and lasted only a short time.

'The tree was right across the tent. There was absolutely nothing you could do' -- camper Elsie Loewen

The Loewens 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 Quebecers' tent, other campers had gathered around, 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 tried 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, an ambulance took the man 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-in-a-million event'

Another tree a few metres away was sheared off by wind about seven metres from the top. The section landed at the steps of nearby camper Joyce Wensley, on holiday from White Rock, B.C. Ironically, Wensley said she left White Rock just ahead of the flood that ravaged southern Alberta. Late last week, her RV was parked in Brandon, when the skies opened in southern Manitoba and flooded communities such as Reston.

"We were considering how lucky we are," Wensley said. "It's just very sad. A person goes on a holiday and such an unexpected, tragic accident takes place. You generally feel pretty safe in a campground."

Gerry Klassen, who was camping next door to the Quebec couple, recalled them pulling into the campground on a three-wheeled motorcycle, with their gear in a small trailer. He was impressed and had planned to wander over and talk to them, but decided to wait.

"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?"

The predominant after-effect in the wake of the sobering news was the random nature of the fatal incident.

"I'm still stunned," Elsie Loewen said. "It doesn't seem real. You plan a nice vacation and all of a sudden your life is snuffed out. And it could have been you or me."

"It could have been any of us, really," added Irma Peters, who with husband Sieg had their RV parked about 30 metres from the scene of the tragedy. "It's unbelievable. We were so close."

Curt Loewen agreed: "Life is fragile. You can be here today and living and..."

Geoff Smith, the 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.

"Especially because it's a perfectly healthy tree that got blown over and the whole root ball came out of the ground with the tree. It had to be a fairly significant wind for that to occur."

Smith said all provincial campgrounds are "audited" in the spring for any trees that might be a threat to public safety. The trees so identified are cut down.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2013 A3

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