September 29, 2020

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'That tornado hit so fast. I thought I was gonna die'

Survivor of Scarth-area twister haunted by memory of teens' truck vanishing behind him

James Blacksmith was certain of two things as dark clouds swirled in the sky above him as he drove toward Virden last Friday evening.

A tornado was forming, and he desperately needed to get off Highway 83.

James Blacksmith.

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James Blacksmith.

"Black clouds were all around me and I saw those storm chasers driving near me on the highway. I heard the wind really come up and then a big hail stone hit my Jeep, so I pulled into a farm and tried to get some cover. I parked under two pine trees," Blacksmith told the Free Press on Tuesday afternoon.

"That tornado hit so fast. I thought I was gonna die."

Minutes later, the resident of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation was still strapped in when an emergency responder poked his head through the shattered side window to check on the 54-year-old man's condition. The red SUV was crushed and perched upside down in a ditch near the driveway of the farmyard, a few dozen metres from the uprooted, sheared pines.

But he had survived — just as he had when a smaller twister ripped the roof off his home nearly two decades ago.

Tragically, however, two teens, Carter Tilbury and Shayna Barnesky, from Melita were driving on the same stretch of highway as Blacksmith on Friday night and were killed when the tornado touched down. The pickup they were travelling in was swept up and flung into a nearby field.

Blacksmith said he's haunted by the memory of the couple's truck following him into the farmyard but then disappearing.

"That white truck pulled up behind me but then it went away from me. I don't know," he said.

Just then, one of the trees split and crashed onto his roof, signalling the start of an ordeal worse than even the most terrifying carnival ride.

"My Jeep started twirling. I don't know how far I got thrown. Everything was so dark, I couldn't see anything," he said. "I think I was airborne and I think I was thrown. It was dark and scary. All the windows blew out. When it stopped moving, I was pinned inside and the Jeep was upside down.

"Someone came up to me and told me to hang on. They had to check on power lines. It seemed like a long time before they got me out. They took me to Virden and then transferred me to the hospital in Brandon."

"My Jeep started twirling. I don't know how far I got thrown. Everything was so dark, I couldn't see anything. I think I was airborne and I think I was thrown. It was dark and scary. All the windows blew out. When it stopped moving, I was pinned inside and the Jeep was upside down" — James Blacksmith

Blacksmith was diagnosed with a broken vertebrae in his neck that did not require surgery, a shoulder sprain and cuts and bruises. He spent four nights in hospital and returned home Tuesday wearing a neck brace, but will return to Brandon for X-rays to determine how he's recovering.

Blacksmith, who was heading home to Sioux Valley after visiting his brother on Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation (about 28 kilometres south of Virden) when the tornado hit, found out Saturday from a nurse Tilbury and Barnesky didn't survive.

"It was hard to hear. I was sick about it, young people like that. It could have been me, too," Blacksmith said. "It was a very powerful storm. I could see the circle forming in the clouds. I was directly underneath it. Someone at the hospital showed me a picture of the tornado right above the farm, and I was right in there."

Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun</p><p>Locals residents survey the damage at Giovanni Colangelo’s farm south of Virden on Saturday following a tornado Friday night that killed two teens from Melita and injured a man from Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation.</p>

Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun

Locals residents survey the damage at Giovanni Colangelo’s farm south of Virden on Saturday following a tornado Friday night that killed two teens from Melita and injured a man from Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation.

Environment Canada said the tornado hit just before 8 p.m. near the hamlet of Scarth, located about 13 kilometres south of Virden. It brought wind speeds of about 190 km/h, and has since categorized the tornado as an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. The scale rates twisters from zero to five, with five being the most severe.

Brad Yochim, fire chief with the Wallace District Fire Department, said the initial call came in as a tornado touchdown near Highway 83 and Road 50N.

A first responder checks on an overturned Jeep Grand Cherokee at the scene where a tornado touched down, uprooting trees and overturning two vehicles near Virden, Man., on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Wallace District Fire Department.

CP

A first responder checks on an overturned Jeep Grand Cherokee at the scene where a tornado touched down, uprooting trees and overturning two vehicles near Virden, Man., on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Wallace District Fire Department.

"There was no other details about any vehicles or anything involved," Yochim said. "I got on scene first and I found a Jeep Grand Cherokee upside down in the ditch on the west side of the road and a pickup truck quite a ways away on the east side of the road. There were hydro lines everywhere and we were taking precautions, so I talked to Mr. Blacksmith and told him, 'It's going to be a little bit before we can get you out.' He was alert and talking to me but he was having a little trouble breathing."

Within about 15 minutes, a Manitoba Hydro crew had cleared the lines and firefighters safely cut him loose and placed him on a backboard.

"We see rollovers and crashes but to have the devastation like this, that's not normal for us," said Yochim.

Blacksmith's younger sister, Roxanne Bone, said she was dumbstruck when another family member messaged her with the news late Friday night.

"I was absolutely shocked. It's hard to understand when someone says your brother's been in a tornado and that he has a broken neck," she said. "Everyone kept saying it was non-life threatening. But I talked to him and saw pictures of his truck all bashed up and thought, 'Holy, s---, this is severe.' This tornado really did damage to him."

Bone said her older brother has serious health issues, such as diabetes and kidney failure, and is on a regular dialysis treatment in Brandon. Blacksmith's partner died a few years ago, their mother died in mid-May and another sibling was buried just weeks ago.

"It's a lot to handle. But we're lucky my brother is alive," she said. "It's so sad those kids passed away. It doesn't make any sense."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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Updated on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 at 7:51 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

10:22 PM: Adds photo

10:38 PM: Adds facebook photo.

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