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‘I just don’t know how I feel’: Fort McMurray fire survivor recounts her personal horror story


Connie Howell called Evangel Pentecostal Church in Grand Falls-Windsor home for a month during the February 2003 flood that caused a mass evacuation from her hometown of Badger.

Despite being displaced from home and watching the lives of family members and friends severely disrupted, even that tumultuous event didn’t prepare her for the Fort McMurray wildfire that swept through her new hometown last week and flipped her life upside down.

“I thought the Badger flood was bad enough, but this is a million, million times worse,” she told TC Media last Friday morning through tears as she recounted the horror from the comfort of her new temporary home – a hotel room in Fort Saskatchewan.

“Why don’t I take you through the day,” she suggested as a means to describe a day that started off with a normal trip to the Syncrude site for work as a fuel truck operator, but left her homeless with nothing but two bags of worldly possessions.

Howell drove her personal truck to work the morning of May 3 as fears and smoke built around the city.

“Something told me to drive just in case,” she said.

She received a call at 2 p.m. to meet a co-worker for a fueling job he needed assistance with.

Before reaching her workmate, Howell got a call from her foreman to (come) join him and another co-worker who were heading to town to try and save some of their things.

She ended up going to town in a company truck, texting her oldest daughter along the way telling her she was going to get some things from the house.

Howell’s oldest daughter and husband, a young grandson and Howell’s middle daughter left the house and were leaving town as part of the mass evacuation.

“She said, ‘Mom, you won’t get in’,” Howell said. “All I could think was, ‘Please God, don’t let this be real’.”

Finally reaching the bottom of Abasand Hill, she realized it was a fact – she couldn’t drive to her home.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to get something, I can’t walk away with nothing’,” she said.

In work coveralls and steel-toed boots, Howell ran up the hill - determined, winded, warm and feeling the effects of the smoke - Howell reached the town house and entered

“I thought – ‘What do you take - so much stuff?’”

In addition to some toiletries and clothing, she decided on a grandson’s picture and an item with his footprints that her daughter had given her for Christmas.

“This is a dream,” she thought upon leaving the house, later realizing later that she had absentmindedly locked the door.

“All I could see was smoke in the underground parking,” she said. “I started running down the hill. A stranger stopped and offered me a ride.

“When I was in the car going down the hill, I could see just homes burning and watched them going up in smoke.”

It was then she called her mom in Badger, talking to her as she escaped with her few treasured items.

“I told her, ‘Mom, I can feel the heat’. We cried together.”

Safe at a downtown hotel, Howell contacted her ex-husband who came (along with their 14 year old daughter) to transport her to Syncrude to get her personal truck.

Reaching her truck, Howell kissed her daughter goodbye and checked on accommodations at the mine site. When it was apparent there was none, Howell left for Saprae Creek where her current boyfriend was living.

“As I was driving through (town) there was nothing but smoke – Abasand was still burning.”

She said some people were leaving the Beacon Hill section of town, trying to get down over the bank to Highway 63 in vehicles but couldn’t make it.

“They were abandoning them (vehicles) and just running.”

She arrived at Saprae Creek  — a neighbourhood just South of the city which was safe from fire at the time but has since been threatened.

Amidst pleas from her children to leave, Howell departed the next morning to drive south. The drive to Highway 63 was scary

“All I could see was dark smoke,” Howell said. “I called my daughter and said ‘Please, just stay on the phone with me’.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”

When Howell reached Highway 63 to turn left toward escape, “All that was facing me was a wall of flame and smoke,” she said. “I got on 63 and felt a bit of relief that I was going to get out, but when I looked in mirror all I could see of Fort McMurray was smoke and flame.”

“I don’t know if the town will go back up,” she said, in obvious dejection over the devastation.

“I’ve talked to some many people from all over who are just leaving.

“What do you do?” she asked rhetorically, musing over her list of to do items for the day: contact the Red Cross; apply for Employment Insurance; contact the bank; contact the union.

High on her priority list was to finally meet all her family members for the first time since they’d scattered for their lives.

Despite being displaced from home and watching the lives of family members and friends severely disrupted, even that tumultuous event didn’t prepare her for the Fort McMurray wildfire that swept through her new hometown last week and flipped her life upside down.

“I thought the Badger flood was bad enough, but this is a million, million times worse,” she told TC Media last Friday morning through tears as she recounted the horror from the comfort of her new temporary home – a hotel room in Fort Saskatchewan.

“Why don’t I take you through the day,” she suggested as a means to describe a day that started off with a normal trip to the Syncrude site for work as a fuel truck operator, but left her homeless with nothing but two bags of worldly possessions.

Howell drove her personal truck to work the morning of May 3 as fears and smoke built around the city.

“Something told me to drive just in case,” she said.

She received a call at 2 p.m. to meet a co-worker for a fueling job he needed assistance with.

Before reaching her workmate, Howell got a call from her foreman to (come) join him and another co-worker who were heading to town to try and save some of their things.

She ended up going to town in a company truck, texting her oldest daughter along the way telling her she was going to get some things from the house.

Howell’s oldest daughter and husband, a young grandson and Howell’s middle daughter left the house and were leaving town as part of the mass evacuation.

“She said, ‘Mom, you won’t get in’,” Howell said. “All I could think was, ‘Please God, don’t let this be real’.”

Finally reaching the bottom of Abasand Hill, she realized it was a fact – she couldn’t drive to her home.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to get something, I can’t walk away with nothing’,” she said.

In work coveralls and steel-toed boots, Howell ran up the hill - determined, winded, warm and feeling the effects of the smoke - Howell reached the town house and entered

“I thought – ‘What do you take - so much stuff?’”

In addition to some toiletries and clothing, she decided on a grandson’s picture and an item with his footprints that her daughter had given her for Christmas.

“This is a dream,” she thought upon leaving the house, later realizing later that she had absentmindedly locked the door.

“All I could see was smoke in the underground parking,” she said. “I started running down the hill. A stranger stopped and offered me a ride.

“When I was in the car going down the hill, I could see just homes burning and watched them going up in smoke.”

It was then she called her mom in Badger, talking to her as she escaped with her few treasured items.

“I told her, ‘Mom, I can feel the heat’. We cried together.”

Safe at a downtown hotel, Howell contacted her ex-husband who came (along with their 14 year old daughter) to transport her to Syncrude to get her personal truck.

Reaching her truck, Howell kissed her daughter goodbye and checked on accommodations at the mine site. When it was apparent there was none, Howell left for Saprae Creek where her current boyfriend was living.

“As I was driving through (town) there was nothing but smoke – Abasand was still burning.”

She said some people were leaving the Beacon Hill section of town, trying to get down over the bank to Highway 63 in vehicles but couldn’t make it.

“They were abandoning them (vehicles) and just running.”

She arrived at Saprae Creek  — a neighbourhood just South of the city which was safe from fire at the time but has since been threatened.

Amidst pleas from her children to leave, Howell departed the next morning to drive south. The drive to Highway 63 was scary

“All I could see was dark smoke,” Howell said. “I called my daughter and said ‘Please, just stay on the phone with me’.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”

When Howell reached Highway 63 to turn left toward escape, “All that was facing me was a wall of flame and smoke,” she said. “I got on 63 and felt a bit of relief that I was going to get out, but when I looked in mirror all I could see of Fort McMurray was smoke and flame.”

“I don’t know if the town will go back up,” she said, in obvious dejection over the devastation.

“I’ve talked to some many people from all over who are just leaving.

“What do you do?” she asked rhetorically, musing over her list of to do items for the day: contact the Red Cross; apply for Employment Insurance; contact the bank; contact the union.

High on her priority list was to finally meet all her family members for the first time since they’d scattered for their lives.

The aftermath

 

“I’ve got nothing except my truck…everything I own is in two bags,” she said reflecting on her plight. “How do you start again…I don’t have a job…I don’t know what’s going to happen with that.”

Immediate help has been plentiful, and appreciated, she noted, even down to the people along Highway 63 - the escape route for thousands – offering up everything from fuel, to water, to food, to gum.

She had visited the Royal Canadian Legion in Fort Sakatchewan and picked up some necessities.

“It’s nice to know that there are a lot of people helping out, even back home,” she said. “There’s a lot of Newfies up here, and everything counts.”

Howell estimated that 95 per cent of the folks in her hotel were from Fort McMurray.

“There are a lot of stressed people here.”

She has a message from the Prime Minister.

“If he can bring the refugees here, he better look after us,” she said of Justin Trudeau. “I’m not prejudiced, I have a lot of friends from all over, and he can bring in refugees and that’s fine, but Fort McMurray is our home.”

Questions about relief and even the handling of the emergency will linger on in her mind.

One concerning thing she witnessed as she tried to get around town in the middle of her scramble to safety is particularly vivid. Even her ex-husband turned transporter pointed it out.

“While we were sitting in his vehicle in traffic we watched a water bomber putting water on the government building downtown while all those houses in Beacon Hill and Abasand were burning.”

“There are a lot of upset people here,” she added.

 

A Penguin win would bring back a smile for fire victim

With only a few precious minutes to gather items from here home in Abasand (Fort McMurray) on Tuesday, Badger native Connie Howell escaped with just a few personal items - and her beloved Penguins jersey.

After a breathless rush into the townhouse in which she lived with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson, Howell scrambled to gather personal items. What she managed to grab as fire approached the building and the power flicked on and off was a couple of pieces that had sentimental value related to her young grandson.

Unable to resist a quick look through her bedroom, she spotted the jersey which had already survived a massive flood in Badger with her.

“I glanced in my closet and I could see the black and gold and white – I just jumped over the bed and grabbed it,” she said.

“That jersey means a lot to me,” she said.

She owned another that read ‘Win, lose or tie – A Pittsburgh fan until I die’.

“That would have been a good one to get, too,” Howell said, reflecting on the tense, life-or-death situation she had faced in trying to collect “something” from her house full of items.

Her beloved Penguins are up 3-1 in their series against the Washington Capitals in this year’s playoffs and could advance to theEastern Conference finals with a series win tomorrow.

She’s even messaged Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux imploring her favourite team to win just for her.

 “They better win that Stanley Cup now to put a smile on my face,” she added.

 

 

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