Fifteen years ago, Lynn Stegman and her family saw a perfect summer evening become the most terrifying and damaging moment of their lives. When it was over, in a matter of minutes, their bodies, their spirits and their family were shattered.
As it did for so many others on July 14, 2000, the Pine Lake tornado turned what was to be a relaxing day at the lake into a catastrophe. Twelve people died and about 140 others were injured.
Lynn, with the support of her two sons, Josh and Jon, is now ready to tell the Red Deer family’s story about the sudden loss of husband and father Cliff Stegman, the subsequent loss of Lynn’s mother, and the pain.
But her story is also about the blessings that have helped the family heal.
The Green Acres campground at Pine Lake had become their favourite summer place. They had parked their trailer there seasonally for three years. “Everybody was great friends at the lake,” Lynn recalled this week.
She had taken the day off and with her mother, Irene Tkachuk, 70, her sons Josh, 14, and Jon, 11, went to the lake get an early start on the weekend. Cliff was joining them after work.
“We had a wonderful day at the lake. No suspicion of a bad storm or any worries at all about the weather. … Cliff had just driven in and he was not alarmed at all about anything. He was glad to be finished the work day … we heard nothing on radio. Our TV was on. There were no warnings.
“We could see in the sky that it was grey but certainly not the black twisting clouds that you see in the movies. It was not that kind of sky at all. But it was unusual,” said Lynn.
Cliff took the boys to the top of the hill above their campsite to take a look at the sky. When they returned they knew that it was going to rain but there was no concern. Then the hail began.
“We knew we were in major trouble when the hail was the size of grapefruits.
“It was so big that it was actually denting the ground and making little craters in the ground. You can imagine what that sounds like on the tin roof of the trailer.
“Cliff got there about quarter to seven and the tornado hit us, we believe, at about three minutes to seven.” They did not know it was a tornado.
As the hail came down, Jon became very upset. Josh, trying to calm his younger brother, asked his family to say the Lord’s Prayer.
“Immediately when that prayer was over, the tornado hit,” said Lynn.
They saw their neighbours run out of their trailer, get under a truck and grab hold of its rear axel. But there was no room for all five of Lynn’s family to get under vehicles. So they took various positions inside the trailer because they knew if they went outside, the hail would seriously injure them.
And then it hit.
Days later when Lynn’s brother when back to the campsite, there was nothing left, save for a few golf balls on the ground.
“Cliff was killed instantly. … It is still hard to talk about the pain of losing him. We had no time to say goodbyes,” Lynn said.
“Josh had the skin shredded from his hands to his elbows. He hit a tree, came down that tree, it took all the flesh off his back, crushed his pelvis.
“Jon and I landed together. My legs were broken and Jonnie actually was able to get up and walk away, so he was the first person to find Josh. Josh had a six-inch nail right in the back of his neck.”
Josh told his younger brother to go find their father. He did not find him.
“By this point it was chaos everywhere. The ground was very dangerous with shattered glass. Everybody had a barbecue and of course nobody had shut off valves … there were vehicles and trees everywhere,” said Lynn.
Somebody did the right thing and led Jon away from danger, to the top of the hill.
Lynn’s mother also ended up at the top of the hill. Her heart had stopped, she had died, said Lynn. But STARS had arrived now and resuscitated her. They flew her in critical condition to Edmonton.
Later when they were reunited, her mother was bruised from head to toe. Irene had a weak heart and would never really recover, and she suffered a lot of fear of storms afterward. It all took a toll and she died two years later.
Josh was taken to a STARS helicopter. But he said he had no pain and told STARS personnel to just send him by ground ambulance so they could use the helicopter for someone else.
It turned out Josh’s injuries were so severe that he went to three hospitals in Calgary for different surgeries and treatment on his hands and his back, for his crushed pelvis, and to have the nail removed. He was in intensive care in Calgary for weeks.
Jon was taken to Innisfail Hospital to have cuts on his hands stitched up. Lynn was taken by ambulance to Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. She was heavily medicated and learned some time later that Cliff had been killed.
“I always assumed that my husband was with Josh. … It was weeks later that I found out that Josh was by himself.”
The family’s recovery began.
When it became possible, Lynn’s doctor made arrangements so that Lynn, Josh and Irene were all located at the Red Deer hospital.
“I had excellent care. It took me a year to learn how to walk again. The recovery period was long.” By the end of that September, she went home in a wheelchair.
Josh was told he might never walk again. He was still in hospital when one day Lynn got a call to come there.
“Coming down the hallway was Josh sitting in a wheelchair, his nurses and his doctors on both sides of him, and he stood up out of that wheelchair and he walked.
“And that was an amazing miracle for us that Josh never needed any special equipment, he never came home in a wheelchair.
“When they took those pins out, by God’s grace and a lot of excellent medical care, he walked.”
One of Lynn’s aunts came to stay with them for almost a year. Josh, who could run up and down the stairs and go shopping with volunteers, “became a caretaker at a very young age,” his mother says.
It was very difficult for her sons to lose their father at their age, said Lynn. Today they all remain grateful for the help and many services they received from the Red Cross, the medical people, the church, the community, other family members and so many others.
“Once you’ve gone through something like that … you need to really think about how do you give back and how do you thank all of these people, many of them strangers, that pulled all of our broken spirits, our broken bodies, our broken home back together again, to make us a family.”
The family has found ways to heal and to give back. They got involved in fundraising for the hospital foundation. Lynn volunteers at the hospital. Josh did a fundraiser for STARS. Jon has found healing through his music.
In 2011 after touring Environment Canada’s weather office in Edmonton, they got involved in pushing for better Doplar radar coverage in Alberta, which has occurred. Josh did a school paper that was shared with government members and which helped lead to improved warning systems, said Lynn.
There is more information available now for people to protect themselves in a tornado.
“We are grateful and would never want to see other families go through what we went through,” said Lynn.
Community fundraising provided enough money to cover Josh and Jon’s post-secondary education, something Lynn said she could not have done.
She said the real story here is the amazing support they received, and fact her sons were able to pull their lives together and become “awesome young men.”
Both Josh and Jon are married now. Josh and his wife are expecting Lynn’s first grandchild in October.
Lynn does not remember anything after the storm hit and they were swept away.
“The storm passed very quickly and the sun was out immediately and I hear, although I never saw this, that there were rainbows. It was that symbol that stays with our family forever, because the rainbow to us really does mean help.”
It was difficult to tell her story after 15 years.
“But when we talked as a family it is also very difficult for us when that day goes by and nothing is said. It doesn’t make sense really. We have moved on. We do not dwell on July 14 but in some ways, in our hearts, it still needs to be honoured.”