A year later, on February 13, 1943, the only buildings in town that remained without gaping windows, fallen chimneys, crazily twisted doors or smashed-in walls were those isolated buildings of the original village. The hundreds of shacks, bunkhouses, warehouses, and administration buildings which had sprung up in those fields also survived. Northwest of the main intersection, by ten o’clock on that terrible evening, only one wrecked and looted building remained — the old Dawson Co-op Union store. All the rest lay under a smoldering mass of debris where sporadic bursts of flame consumed what little was left of the main business section. Soldiers guarded the ruins of the old village and some looted the crazy wrecks that somehow miraculously escaped the flames.
In March of 1942 the first group of American Army engineers had bivouacked a half mile west of the village on the way to Fort St. John. From there they were to leave the country’s only graveled main highway, and commence the construction of the “tote road” by which men and supplies would follow for the construction of the Alaska Highway, made necessary for the defenses of Alaska in World War II. In the intervening months, an unknown number of people had come in the wake of the construction personnel. The only way of estimating the number is by the ration book distribution which was about to take place the following week. Army personnel and the thousands who ate in mess halls and the “floating” population of truck drivers and others who ate at cafes had no ration books, but the families of these and others who had established homes brought the total to ten thousand, to be distributed in the next few days.
I was the ration officer at the time. My “office” was a tiny room at the back of a grocery store in the center of the block that was doomed. With scarcely room for a card table to hold my typewriter and files, I shared the space with the grocery stock and some cases of ammunition, piled to the ceiling on the side towards the grocery from which I entered. The only other door led to a larger warehouse from which one went to the flour and oil storage warehouses. Mr. Wilson, on the ration board, had loaned the room as the only available spot for a needed service in a village bursting its walls for space. Overhead a light ceiling made a storage place for cartons of used counter check books and other things. Like every other building in town, the structure was of flimsy wood construction.
As ration officer, I was struggling with problems. The first book was expiring and the first distribution from local centers was due. Officialdom was hard to convince, first that all the scattered settlers in the Peace River Block could not come by horse and sleigh over snow-choked roads to Dawson Creek to pick up their books, . . . second that I needed more than the 600 listed on the official record of the first distribution as issued to this area … third that they should HURRY my books and papers in here, since goods often lay for days before delivery when army material had preference. I had finally persuaded them by frantic telegrams to send me 6000 of the 12,000 minimum I was sure I needed, and had the invoice. . . also the caution that they were to be stored prior to distribution in a vault, safe from fire or theft. In a town where liquor — legitimate or bootleg — commanded fantastic prices, the possession of all those sugar coupons meant potential riches for would-be brewers. Mr. Fred Newby had given me permission to store them on arrival in the only vault outside the crammed one at the one bank — the one in the Dawson Co-op building. I had emphatically warned the express office not to deliver the four cartons containing 1500 books each to anybody but me. I would personally accompany the horse-drawn dray to the Co-op, as per instructions from my head office.
Meanwhile, I was struggling with the matter of getting absolutely responsible persons to take on the distribution and keep the records in the twenty-odd country post office districts around the center. I had had to write each one, asking the cooperation of the postmaster or someone who could act, get the estimated number of souls who would need books, and the exact address to which to register the precious parcel, together with all the papers of instruction. On the morning of February 13 I left home as usual at 10:30 to open my office at 1 p.m. To get some important mail, I had to queue up at the end of a block and a half of people four abreast or more. We waited, more or less patiently, to get to the wicket of a Quonset hut that served as post office after the burning of the old one sometime previously. That day I got the last of the letters of acceptance. This was a relief, since before distribution started on the next Thursday most of these points would not have another of their weekly dispatches of mail, which usually occurred on a Friday, the mailman returning Saturday. I hoped to have the books out the following Saturday for country citizens to pick up at their local post offices. Not off the mail-sleigh — two days later than the town delivery, but still in time for the next week’s purchase of sugar. As a new “civil servant” . . . volunteer and unpaid . . . I was being VERY careful. The fact that my Boss from the head office in Edmonton had solemnly warned me that a fine of $10,000 was provided for the misuse or loss of these books may have had something to do with it. I was relieved not to have to consign them to an unknown person or face the wrath of a citizen who had to go without sugar after a winter trip to his country store!
On my arrival at my office I was startled to find the four cartons of books, plainly marked as to contents, had been unceremoniously dumped by the express man in the grocery store in spite of my careful arrangements. Mr. Wilson, knowing the situation, had removed them to the outside flour warehouse as the safest place. The Co-op vault was a block away and his store was jammed with customers needing his services. When he told me they could stay there over the weekend, I gasped “Oh! No! They will burn up!” He looked at me as if I was daft, as no doubt I appeared, and walked off.
I completed my files of consignees, and estimated numbers of books. I ascertained that the Edmonton office, in response to several emphatic (collect) telegrams, was now reluctantly sending me 6 000 more books, instead of the 10 000 I had beseeched. I was to send back all UNOPENED CARTONS the next mail after distribution ended! I addressed letters containing the critical documents to my twenty-odd assistants in the country post offices. But all the while the nagging certainty that those 6 000 books were unsafe in that warehouse was gnawing at me, so I went out to try to find a dray or a car driver to move the boxes to the vault. In the solidly packed humanity on the sidewalks, I dared not carry those marked cartons, even if I could have wrestled the sixty pounds through the throngs. Not a chance! Then I went to the post office back door and arranged with the postmistress, Mrs. Marjorie Giles, to bring my parcels for country distribution at ten o’clock in the evening. This was a great concession on her part in those days when in one small hut she was managing the mail distribution for not only Dawson Creek but the whole Peace River Block and the Highway. When I told her of my “obsession”, she wryly remarked that she wanted no more fires in the Post Office.
The obsession with fire had begun after I awoke with a hunch that disaster hovered. I told my family at breakfast. My husband was a bit skeptical, of course, and inclined to scoff. But my grandmother, 83, who had just come to live with us, told him of other instances when these hunches of mine had seemed coincidental with the events. This included one time when I was six that preceded the only earthquake known in that area, before or since. The feeling continued to oppress me when my little son, Roderick, asked as usual to go with the big boys to the Saturday afternoon movie. Without thinking, I sharply forbade it. My husband scoffed again in a pleasant, husbandly way, at my one-chick solicitude, so I reluctantly gave in, having no reasonable excuse for not doing so.
Now the postmistress cocked a quizzical eyebrow at prosaic me and my premonitions. So did the Catholic Father, to whom I explained that I could not come to a committee meeting he was chairman of, since I would be bundling books for country points that evening. He chided me, saying that the distribution committee was to meet the following Monday to help me do the 5 000-odd books into parcels, but again I told him of my premonition and left him looking rather amused . . . . .
On Monday not a single member of the distribution committee he spoke of were able to meet to receive instruction on distribution procedure and work out a schedule of hours they could serve. The books they would have tied in parcels were fine white ash drifting off in the Chinook that still mercifully brought the warm air from the Pacific over their broken homes. Everyone was hurt or had relatives injured and needing care . . . or had to restore his home so that he could have warmth if the Chinook, after the way of these winds, suddenly died in a 50 to 80 degree plunge of the mercury.
But, to return to the Saturday of the disaster. I went to the hairdresser and cancelled a six pm appointment for a permanent. This likely saved my life. In those days the towering machine, with its scores of cables with heating units attached, was the regular mode of torture for beauty. The weight of the cables stretched the complaining skin over one’s forehead and scalp almost to the breaking point. By the “zero hour” when the machine swayed, my jaw and my neck would have undoubtedly been broken. The plate glass window shattered into numberless glass projectiles that stuck like porcupine quills into the wall behind where I would have been sitting. It was a block from the centre of the blast.
I then made arrangements with my husband, employed in a hardware two doors west, to tell grandmother why I had not returned for an early dinner in preparation for the “perm” appointment. There were practically no phones for residences then. I also arranged for him to come back after his dinner and help me bundle the books and fill out papers, and transport the packages to the post office. Then I began my self-imposed task.
By six-fifteen I was finishing the first carton of 1,500 books, working on the floor since my “desk” card table was crowded. The second carton was unopened on the table, when Mr. Wilson, owner of the grocery, came in, thinking I had gone leaving the light burning. He ridiculed my again-repeated feeling that the books would be in danger of theft or burning if they remained in his warehouse, and then he went off carrying a coal-oil can for filling at the outside storage shed. I heard him return through the warehouse to my left.
A moment later I heard a whoosh and crackle of flames.
Thinking he had spilled some coal oil on a cigarette butt in the warehouse, I opened the door cautiously. Through the open back door of that passageway I could see the flames burning up the corner of the building across the alley and a little west. I put in the alarm.
The building on fire was a former livery barn with a high loft, measuring about 50 by 120 feet. It had been jammed from floor to rafters with everything that goes into more than a thousand miles of telephone line, plus all the tools needed to build it along with tires for vehicles. There were thousands of miles of copper wire, kegs of nails, crowbars, picks, shovels, bolts and cables as well as wooden cross arms. Nobody was aware then that someone had actually stored a truckload of dynamite in one portion, and another subcontractor had stored an unknown number of cases of percussion caps in HIS section on the other side of a flimsy partition. . . . . this in spite of the fact that the building was in the centre of the town business section. Nobody was concerned, either, that across the 66-foot street, on a railway spur, stood other boxcars of dynamite yet unloaded!
Fire of any kind was a horror in a frontier town. There was no water system. Our system was to buy drinking water at five cents a pail. . . . newly raised from two-for-five … from a water tank pulled by horses, and delivered by man-power. For the rest, we used rain barrels in summer and melted snow in winter. True, the streets were wet from the warm Chinook that blew steadily from the southwest, but that gave no reservoir for the volunteer firemen. There was no water for them or for the hundreds of soldiers downtown for the regular Saturday evening amusements. They pitched in to try to save the adjoining businesses and the lumber. There was nothing to do but let the structure burn while they used sacks, wet from the tank the waterman drew close, to dampen the adjoining buildings. Some opened the back doors of the burning barn and tried to back out the truck that was inside. Word spread that the truck contained dynamite, but few believed it. Others, like my husband who was a construction man himself and knew dynamite could burn harmlessly, were unconcerned. I did not know that the soldiers were running in all directions warning people to take cover in case some did “blow”.
I doubt a person heeded the advice. Fire has a great fascination and this one went like tinder until the whole February-darkened village was as light as day. Thousands thronged the streets. Curious children and just-as-curious elders left their dinners to cool to press close to the scene on all sides. A few yards away, the movie house had emptied just as the alarm sounded. . . my son among them. . . and they naturally gravitated to the display. The train came in. It was a long one with standing room only on the day coaches and many of the occupants rushed to see the show. I saw thousands, packed like sardines, in a huge ring at the distance the heat would allow. To ease my aching knees, I rose and went to the back door of the warehouse about twenty minutes after the first alarm at 6:20. Some men were coming out of the open back door of the burning structure, and the American military police brandishing automatics, were trying to press back the solid crowd. As I watched, the building was ablaze from end to end, and sagging to fall.
Suddenly a DIFFERENT flame shot out from the eastern side. It was a swirling cylinder of lurid, coloured flames and indescribable fumes and smoke that ascended at an angle. Then another. I spoke to Mr. George Dudley and Miss Leona Miller who with Mr. Dudley’s son, Giles, were watching. We agreed that there must be some chemical there. I was convinced now that the block would eventually burn, so I returned at once to my books. Before doing so, something prompted me to put my fur coat and my purse, which by chance contained several hundred dollars, out in the locked front of the grocery store in case I had to make a quick getaway. As I said, I had no knowledge of the expectation of an explosion, as the soldiers never did reach us with the warning. I opened my second box on the card table, kneeled to stack the bundles on the floor for more room and there was the ‘crack’ of what I thought to be a shot. I thought, “The soldiers are firing over the heads of the crowd to make them get back before the building falls.” There was a second sharp sound… then the light went out. For what must have been twenty minutes I did not know anything. A few nights later I relived the whole thing in a dream… or nightmare, when I “heard” and “felt” the blast, but of the time itself I remember nothing.
That is why I cannot describe, as others did, the sudden falling down of those nearest the building, followed by a concentric falling of those farther and farther away. Before the sound or blast reached the spectators a block away, they had time to wonder what ailed everybody that they were lying down in circles one after another. Then the blast hit them and over they would go like a bowling pin. If they were in front of windows they might hear the glass breaking from the blast. Some nearer, over whose heads the blast raised its force in the rays characteristic of dynamite, had the glass fall OUT on them after they fell, in the back draft of the air rushing into the vacuum. The burning building and its contents — completely red-hot — went hundreds of feet in the air. Where the brightness of flames had been a second before there was a momentary blackness as the fire was snuffed out like a candle. But a few minutes later there were hundreds of small fires as debris came down over a block away in all directions. Worst was the thousands of miles of copper wire which unrolled from its reels and tied everything in its tangled coils. Over a block away a school nurse, driving her car, was startled by a flaming auto tire descending on her car’s radiator to hang and flame on.
Afterward the stories of eyewitnesses were as varied as could be imagined. One man, standing on the roof of the lumberyard lived to tell how he was projected into the air like a rocket, and flew though the sky in a great arc that landed him in the next block. Another, more than a block away, was watching from beside a light pole, when he heard something… moved his head to one side to look up…and saw a red-hot crowbar pass between his ear as the pole. It tore out a chunk of wood as long as my arm and half the size of my wrist, as I observed when I checked up on the situation after the man showed me his singed hair and blistered ear. Thousands told stories of miraculous escapes. Not the least thankful for deliverance were those who were blown off the cars that contained dynamite on the sidetrack. Some watching from vehicles got out with great difficulty after being swirled in coils of wire like a vast entanglement. Hundreds were cut by flying glass and other things.
Like an American soldier who was said to have been struck by the massed contents of a keg of nails that burst apart, after which he fell down and was run over by a fleeing truck! I cleaned up the operating room of the hospital were he died later that evening. There were nails on the floor… and bits of flesh… and blood had spurted on the walls, and there was even some on the ceiling.
In fact the whole hospital lobby was smeared with blood and mud head-high and the halls and corridors had their quota where the people had thronged in for first aid.
For at least twenty minutes I knew nothing of this, judging from what was going on out on the street when I finally climbed out the TOP of the doorway to my office. I had to scramble over a collapsed pile of grocery cartons of canned goods — not to mention ammunition — that had fallen towards the blast center from as high as the ceiling. It had fallen towards me, too, where I had been kneeling on the floor. The next morning, when I went back, there was one clear space barely big enough to accommodate my crouched body, entirely free of debris! Opposite the blast there was the unmistakable remains of my box of books. It must have been that which blew off the table right at my head, and accounted for the lump the size of an apple on my forehead. There was nothing else LOOSE that I could account for, and sixty pounds could raise quite a wallop. In any case, to get from where it had been to where it came to rest it had to pass WHERE I WAS at the time of the blast.
As I woke up, I remember thinking, “My back is broken. There is a flaming piece of wood on the roof next door. I can’t move, and I am going to burn here.” At first I was curiously calm, but then it seemed such a pity to have to die trapped like this. Of course nobody knew where I was but my husband, and he hadn’t come. So, being only half as close to the fire as I, he was probably burned. So who would look for Roddy, my son, who would be with his daddy as usual after he came out of the show?” This thought gave me the impetus to try to move. I tried… and felt no pain. Then I lay there thinking, “but if my back is broken I’ll feel no pain”. Curiously detached. I decided… “I’ll try to listen to hear if the bones GRATE if I move.” Nothing. So one by one I tried each set of fingers and toes. THEY MOVED! Suddenly, I am sure I said aloud, “Well, for goodness’ sake! I can move. I’M GETTING OUT OF HERE.” And I did — out the top of the door over a careening heap of cartons. The ceiling had come down too, with its load of boxes, on that side of the room. Maybe that is what struck my back, where a welt the size of my arm rose, to be discovered three days later when I finally took my clothes off and went to bed!
Except for a few dazed people standing around — mostly soldiers –, the street was deserted now. Dazed myself, I ran the wrong way first, towards the doctor’s office, where somehow I expected my husband and son to be. The destruction was incredible. I appealed to some American soldiers to help me find my boy and husband. They seemed dazed, too. They all said, “I don’t know what I can do, lady.” Suddenly I was furious. I remember tongue-lashing one boy in uniform for his lack of cooperation, and he began to blubber. Turning to run towards the store and theatre, I came upon a man staggering down the street. The pants looked familiar. Nothing else was recognizable for blood and mud… the face was streaming red from near an eye. The voice was my husband’s. He wanted to lie down in the gutter now he had found me. Some fragments of recent Red Cross First Aid classes about “shock” crossed my addled mind — the necessity of keeping him warm to prevent pneumonia. I persuaded him to sit in a shattered window opening and went back for my coat to wrap round him. Looking on the floor at the stuff from the shelves, I made a mental estimate of where the coat that I had laid on the counter must have blown to. I groped in the shattered remains of pickle bottles on the floor in the darkness and put my hand on the purse — still on the coat as I had laid it in the counter. On returning, I found that a friend, Mr. Kingsley, in whose window he had been sitting, had now got Howard into a car and said he would take him to the doctor. I have never ceased to be sorry I did not splint the arm as I should. I can only blame my confusion from shock and fear. That hand is still only twenty-five percent useful, after being re-broken and a metal plate set in. Perhaps a smashed larger bone below the elbow would have turned out that way anyway, but…
There was little evidence of fire at this time… the many that started after the spread of the big one had not got underway yet, but the debris in the street was incredible. The whole block was to go in the next three hours, except the Co-op store. How they saved the other side of the street, or even the next blocks, is an epic of hundreds of small fires extinguished by soldiers and citizens without water. The building my husband was in was already burning. I decided not to go in looking for Roddy, because Howard had said as he was driven off, “Is the boy with you?” I thought he could no have gone to his daddy as usual after the show. It was likely a small boy would go to watch the fire… panic almost took me into the center of the blazes that were springing up. But I decided I could never find him, and that I should go home first to look for him, and to get a bed ready for Howard who would soon be brought home with his arm set, I thought. He came home sixteen days later.
Our home is a half-mile from the explosion, and shielded by the embankment of a large earth reservoir. Grandmother said when the blast came the cabin seemed to rise about a foot. Maybe it did. Years later we found, on tearing down the brick chimney, that although it looked all right from above and below, the part above the roof had shifted and was resting on the shingles. There was half-inch gap, concealed by the thickness of the sheathing, the UNDER side of the shingles and the UPPER side of the sheathing were well scorched. The floor had been a trifle sway-backed ever since… and there had been some ominous creaks and cracks at times up there. But the man who went up before we lighted a fire the next morning said ours was one of the few chimneys that wasn’t damaged to a dangerous degree.
Just before the blast, the elder Fredericks boys had dragged home a reluctant four-year old Roddy, who wanted to stay to walk with daddy. They had come straight home when the show got out in spite of the big fire, already burning. If it had been fifteen minutes earlier when the flimsy frame theatre was packed to the doors with the Saturday afternoon matinee, the crush and panic… one cannot think of it! The building escaped miraculously unscathed when others much further away were badly shattered. After that they put in the two large double door exits with panic-bars.
Grandmother was giving the little fellow his cocoa when the blast hit. He had told her where the fire was. She knew it was within 60 to 120 feet of where we were working. She got to the east window in time to see the enormous mushroom of smoke and material still going up… up… several hundred feet…pause… and shower down its fireworks display of lethal potential. She expected never to see us alive again. Lame, a stranger, and with a small boy in charge, she could not go so there I found her. Mindful of the probable collapse of the chimney, so great was the noise over-head, she had banked the fires with ashes so there would be no flame, and was telling the little boy a story to quiet him crying that Mommy and Daddy were burned up, when I walked in. She confessed she was trying, in the darkness — since the town power plant was gone — to map out a plan as she talked for herself and the little orphan whom she was comforting and diverting. We found the oil lamp, and I can remember her sitting down then and fanning herself with a pot holder after pouring me tea, and ascertaining that Howard was alive and would likely be home. In a few seconds, her sharp, “Get going, my girl. We’ve work to do!” got me on my feet again in spite of the blazing headache. It was then I discovered the lump on my head.
A car stopped. Instead of bringing Howard home, it brought someone to say that Howard had been found wandering on the street in a dazed condition and had been taken to the neighboring town of Pouce Coupe to their hospital since ours was full to the rafters. This agitated me, since I had seen him on his way to the local doctor, and gone as he urged, to find Roddy. I reproached myself then, as many times since, for not staying with him. Later Mr. Kingsley came to say that he HAD taken him to Dr. Girow here, and left him to go in search of his own wife who was missing. Someone else came to say they had actually seen Howard stagger out of the doctor’s office, supporting his broken arm and with his face still streaming blood. I was now nearly at my wit’s end, but the whole-block holocaust now visible, and the news that the soldiers had cut off access to the town center made me decide to stay and wait until it became clear what to do. After two hours, Mr. Sam Miller came to tell me that he had found Howard dazed and stumbling around the streets looking for Roddy. He had taken him to Pouce Coupe as our hospital truly was full and had stayed with him until the blood vessel near the eye was stopped and the arm set. Had I stayed and seen to him, he would likely have got into Dawson Creek hospital and been flown to Edmonton for treatment. This would have undoubtedly saved his arm.
Satisfied now that we were all safe, it suddenly dawned on me that I was registered as an emergency Red Cross hospital aide in case of emergency. Grandmother was quite calm as usual, so off I went to the hospital. Not being nurses, Mrs. Henry McQueen and I were first turned away. When we made it clear we would do ANYTHING, we were put to work. My job was washing up the operating room where the fight to save the soldier’s life had lost. I have often wondered what I would have the courage to do if needed. I know now that a room whose interior decoration is mostly blood would not render me helpless… or nauseated THEN. Afterwards, Mrs. McQueen and I washed the entire downstairs hall, floor and wall head-high… rinsed out the operating room linens… pails and pails of blood-soaked sheets, towels and surgical gowns… and at six o’clock started washing dishes from the first breakfast. We finished around nine after the third and fourth breakfast. The army had brought in cots and blankets and every ward and room had double-deck cots set as close as a body could barely squeeze between. How the Sisters had coped with that number and the hundreds who came for first aid and went away again I shall never know. They were superb.
Poor Grandmother was having a bad time at home meanwhile. When I did not arrive at ten as planned, Mrs. Giles had come looking for me, to see whether I had got out of the now-burnt building where she knew I had been working. Grandmother told her I had gone to the hospital, so she came over there. The emergency lighting had just gone off and in the confusion — or perhaps thinking I was to be presumed a patient — somebody told her I was not in the hospital. I heard someone being paged, but the name didn’t sound like any of the numberless versions of my unusual surname, so I did not answer. Mrs. Giles now went to my home to see whether I had returned there safely since it was nearly a mile in the pitch darkness and over the glare-ice roads left by the Chinook. Poor Grandmother sat up the rest of the night waiting…waiting. Several women had been molested and one almost killed in the streets before that I had gone without the small dark-blue Noxema jar containing red pepper which I carried under my glove “at the ready” when out on the streets at night. Not knowing of Grandmother’s fear, I did not go straight home.
The smoking ruins were still out-of-bounds for sightseers. I got a permit from the police to enter past the military guards, mostly from the labor battalion. I needed to claim what I expected would be left of my ration books. Years before I had seen a very hot and lengthy fire in a hotel in Swift Current leave an Eaton’s catalogue practically intact. It was explained that paper closely laid does not burn readily. I thought of those cartons of books, each about 12 by 16 by 24 inches, so solidly jammed with 100-book tightly tied bundles that I had to pry vigorously to get the first bundle out. I expected thousands of books would be scarcely more than smoked in the three full boxes. Of the small bundles I had tied, scarcely a trace could be seen. In the ruins of the office there was a rectangle of white ashes of the approximate size of a carton. As I stirred the ash to find any black carbonized paper, the fine white ash drifted off in the fresh breeze. Thinking that could NOT be the remains of my books, I picked my way through the debris that was still hot to the remains of the warehouse where two cartons had sat. Sure enough, the same two rectangles of pure ash remained there, too. Nobody had snatched my books.
Later I learned that the fire had been unbelievably hot. It had burned holes completely through cast-iron fire pots of stoves that had no fire at the time of the blast. The tinsmith-plumber’s heavy tools were bent like tin. A body so nearly consumed that the bones partly buried in ash were first thought to be a dog’s, then a child’s, were afterwards identified as a man’s — probably quite a young man. The “waterman”, a husky youth who carried two huge pails of water hours a day, was seen at the spot with his team and tank a few moments before the blast. He was never heard of again. Of another very heavy-set older man, Ed Breault, not enough remained uncremated, to identify him, until sifting the ashes thereabout, a peculiar fitting from suspenders he usually wore, was found under the ash. Once this well-known missing resident was found after many hours’ absence, no other search of the ruins was made for bodies. For months notices seeking “the whereabouts of one last heard from in or near Dawson Creek” hung in the post office. One American soldier said that of his company, twenty-one never answered roll call again. A soldier is “missing” until his body, alive or dead, is found. The army does not dig in civilian ruins. For weeks until the debris was bull-dozed into heaps and carted away, a peculiar sickening stench hung over the area. Some who had been in bombings overseas said it was peculiarly reminiscent of burned flesh. No butcher shop was in that area at the time…
But these considerations were of no consequence to me then. I had to telegraph relatives… and the ration office, in Edmonton. I had instructions that, if any difficulty arose I could not cope with, they would send assistance. I confidently hoped that the brief telegram the operator begged me to send, since the wires were still jammed, would bring the “assistance”, when I said, “ration office and all supplies burned.” Then I went home. It was near noon.
Again grandmother was overjoyed to greet me. Already dozens of people had called at the house wanting to know WHEN they would get their ration books. Why they should care at that early Sunday morning was not clear. Every store but the Co-op was burned or wrecked, and it had been completely looted, when against the will of the manager, the American army trucks backed up and systematically emptied the structure. Most of the goods were never recovered. Poor aged Grandmother, heartsick because she knew nothing of me except that I had NOT been found at the hospital, was staving off the demands of these thoughtless and importunate ones who demanded that she find them a book… and right NOW. All day they called and bothered me…none could stay to help me, and the job of reorganizing the distribution and instructions or memoranda was still ahead. Of my original helpers not one was able to assist. The distribution centers were all gone. Six thousand books were delivered at my home…the consignment that was to supplement the first 6000, now gone. Feeling nothing safe, I decided to bundle these replacement books and get them into the post office, out of my responsibility. I didn’t like some of the men who came demanding coupons. Grandmother’s tart tongue at the door steered these away as I set about writing out the forms that had to accompany the books to the outlying post offices. I had no carbon paper. There was no store open. I worked from memory. In only one of the twenty-odd centers did I make a serious mistake in the number to be sent. Somehow the names of people I had never seen, but who were on my lists as “responsible persons for distribution” came to me in that time of stress. I worked all Sunday night in my haste to get them ready, but being a poor, slow typist I was far from done next morning. In the afternoon two devoted ladies came to offer assistance. They were the missionaries who drove the Anglican Sunday School vans over the frontier trails to the outlying settlements all summer. Turning my job over to them, I set about others.
There was the matter of inspecting the chimney and the matter of water. The waterman was to come on Monday, but he was as yet under the ashes. The Chinook had taken all the snow that I might have melted. It was a relief when one of the boys from the store where my husband worked came with a few chunks of ice — enough to cook with, but not enough to bathe or wash dishes. Young Bob McQueen was more thoughtful, at sixteen, than many of the men. He told me the details of the blast in the store, and my husband’s injury.
There was also community work — trudging around to find a place where we could give out the books on the Thursday so that we could put up notices that would tell the people that they would get coupons when they needed them. I could hardly make any headway for the importunate questioners.
I was also head of the disaster committee of the Red Cross. There was a community shower to plan for the nine families who had lost everything they possessed as they fled, leaving everything after the blast, as people began to shout that there was more dynamite near the fire. Even if stores had been able to open, there was no underwear, no clothing, no shoes — nothing in a town whose quota was set by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board at its pre-war number of 600, in spite of all frantic appeals that the population of civilians was now nearer 12, 000. I got the “shower” going and spent Monday night turning out our house to pack up everything we could spare. I shall never forget the number of people who scorned the idea of a “shower” because the victims all had insurance. I was appalled at the little that came to the central depot for distribution, and took to trudging again to appeal personally.
People still seemed dazed but soon rallied round, and the victims were soon housed and clothed by the generosity of their friends. Many homes became free refuges for weeks for numbers of those who were homeless or unable to live in their wrecked places. There were no nails for repairs and not a thousandth enough glass — no materials at all. And still no water wagon. I was lucky, being given ice from the McQueen farm. Others dipped water from the puddles and boiled it.
Tuesday night I answered letters of frantic friends and relatives. Wednesday night I got into bed for the first time since the Friday before. By this time my whole body had turned the yellow and blue of a bruise that is fading out. This was caused by the force of the concussion at close range. I was lucky…my ears didn’t bother much, but my face twitched all down the left side for months after. It was a bit difficult to hook my belt over the welt half the size of my arm across the small of my back. The hat styles of the day accommodated the head-lump fairly comfortably. The fur coat that had lain in the remains of pickle bottles still shed slivers of glass when I moved it, but I had a coat! All together I was very lucky.
Not so Howard who still lay in Pouce Hospital. Every day I expected the doctor to bring him home as he kept saying Howard was doing fine. All cars were laid up for the duration by gas rationing. The only road was a glare of ice with convoys of trucks radiator to taillight, but I knew no one who was going to Pouce Coupe. I couldn’t walk the eight miles… at least it did not seem necessary if Howard were coming home any minute but here was Wednesday. The telephone office was burned and Howard had not come home. I was worried and couldn’t sleep.
The “shower” was in progress, so I finally found someone who would take me to Pouce Coupe, and left to see for myself what had happened.
The shock was extreme. I had been told that an artery at the eye had been cut, and there was a simple fracture of the humerus — nothing really to be concerned about. But Howard’s face was the red of a surface burn all over the part not swathed in bandages. He said half his body was lightly scalded, whether by steam from the pipes which had fallen, or from battery acid from the charger into which he had been hurled, we did not know. His left shoulder and side were the darkest and most violently bruised area I had ever seen, swollen until the hospital gown would not cover. And his hand, protruding from the cast resembled nothing so much as a cluster of those huge sausages — shiny from swelling and a ghastly green. It was hard to suppress a scream. I tried to find why the cast had not been removed. It was evident that circulation could not be maintained. He was in an awful agony of pain. The matron could do nothing — she was not “authorized”. The country doctor was not to be found. Later that night they split the cast just in time, since gangrene was imminent. Only the newly available sulpha drug saved the arm…perhaps his life. Lack of adequate medical care was the big price of frontier life. For sixteen days that “simple fracture” kept Howard in hospital, and even then he left only because our employer, Mr. George Bissett, had been removed to Edmonton and as bookkeeper, Howard was needed to help the insurance adjusters. He went back to work on our own home in terrible pain still.
Wednesday night Grandmother MADE me go to bed. It seems that under a strain like this one gets “wound up”, and feels no need of sleep. That was a night of nightmares in which I lived over again the whole explosion — hearing the sounds, seeing the light flash reflected from the next building, feeling the blow on the head and an object falling on my back. I HAD HAD NO RECOLLECTION OF THESE DETAILS UP TO THAT TIME. It was only then that the memory of those silly thoughts that I was helpless in the ruins came back to me clearly.
Thursday morning — the day ration book distribution was to start. No books and no forms had yet arrived from the office in Edmonton. It had got so that I was almost mechanically saying to anyone I met at the door or on the street, “I don’t know…I don’t know when you get your ration books!” With some it became almost an obsession. Looking back now, I can see it was a form of shock — their minds fastened on something. A doctor explained later that the brain of anyone close to the blast had millions of little bruises that might take two years to obliterate entirely… such is “shell-shock” in one of its forms.
On Tuesday I had telegraphed again, “Please send help for ration book distribution, and all supplies”.
Thursday morning as I prepared to leave for the daily wait in the Post Office queue, Roddy came crying, “Mommy, look at my thumb”. Look I did… it was dislocated. I pulled it back into place, asking of course, “How did you do it?” “A truck ran into me.” “Don’t tell Mommy such stories,” I said. “Come and look at Harley’s sleigh if you don’t believe me”. I did. It was smashed flat… metal and splinters no bigger than a pencil. I sat down on the sidewalk and began to howl! The first tears I had shed, but I could not stop them now, until Grandmother came with a cold wet wash cloth and firmly washed my face, boxed my ears, and said “Straighten up. Here’s a telegram.”
It was from the Wartime Prices and Trade Board office. It said, “Please specify what kind of help you require.”
This was TOO much! Hadn’t I sent two telegrams with follow-up letters? Hadn’t the news of our disaster been over half the front page of the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Bulletin? Although sobs still came now and again in spite of me, I marched to the telegraph office and wrote, “Everything but the ration office secretary burned up. Use your imagination.” The agent cocked an eyebrow, and said, “You want this sent, ma’am?” I started to cry again — “delayed shock”, the doctor called it later, for I NEVER cried before the blast, and I wondered if I was losing my mind! “Certainly”, I snapped, “Why not?” “Wel-l-l?” he said. “Prepaid?” he asked. I marched out. Wasn’t I a volunteer secretary and my salary exactly nil? It was about 11 a.m.
Nothing on the N.A.R. ever got such speed before! By three o’clock a personable young man, carrying one of those sixty pound cartons walked into the church where we were starting with what few books were left of the 6000 en route at the time of the fire, to distribute… and answer questions “We’ll give out what we have. After that WE DON’T KNOW.” Those devoted missionary ladies and the few neighbors who could be spared in a town gripped with emergency shelter, feeding and nursing problems, were already there.
The young man had caught a military flight and come by air. Bless the young. They can visualize an emergency. He said they were still arguing at Edmonton as to WHY that daft woman at Dawson Creek should need more than 6000 books, which she had. He took cognizance of the milling throngs on the street and wired for another carton of 1500, besides the second box he had brought with him. He said something about that telegram indicated I meant business. On Saturday evening we broke open the fifth 1500 book carton, before we finished our distribution ON TIME.
Odd — why cannot I remember the names of those two so-helpful ladies or the nice young man? He said I reminded him of HIS mother.
Thursday night he took over the distribution, got me transportation to Pouce Coupe to see Howard, and gave me instructions to forget everything and go to bed. Howard was improved. I slept.
During the whole time Grandmother was a tower of strength — looking after the boy, making meals at the odd hours I arrived home and making her own brand of “Postum Cereal” from burnt bran and molasses. Since there was no hope of getting near a store counter, she “made do” with an ingenuity that spoke of her pioneer days as a girl in Michigan and again on the Saskatchewan prairies before Saskatchewan was a province. She, to whom I had rushed home on the first night, fearful that she would have collapsed of shock! Collapse? Not SHE!
In the days that followed, I had time to hear what had been going on outside my limited circle of concern. The stories of experience were legion.
A friend told me how our little black Cocker, Curly made a daily morning pilgrimage to the ruins of the hardware store jauntily running, to return half-an-hour later after inspection of the ruins, dejected and slow. She and Howard had been inseparable but she had not been there the night he was hurt. How she knew where to look we never knew. Sixteen days she went, until he came home.
Howard had been standing with his employer and a third man at the back of the Bisset building. The back part had been rented as a truck garage and repair shop to Wilson Freightways. It cornered the burning building across the narrow alley. The three men had crowbars, ready to fend off the burning walls if they fell too close on collapsing. Howard knew there was dynamite but knew, too, it could burn harmlessly, unless detonated. Nobody dreamed of the percussion caps right alongside. He heard first, but unlike me recognized it for what it was — and turned to flee. The blast caught him, hurled him twelve feet into a battery charger, and toppled the great garage door on the other two. The list of injuries of the man whose name I do not know sounded like a catalogue of experiences in an emergency ward, but he lived. Mr. Bissett was in bad shape, and his heart had no perceptible beat when they brought him into the military hospital hut that supplemented the local hospital. Adrenaline started it again, but it was not until four o’clock they were sure it would go on it’s own. Meanwhile he was being flown to Edmonton, for there were no blood transfusion or serum services here at the time. The next week we began getting Red Cross disaster supplies ready for whatever else might come. After all, several other caches of dynamite had been found right in town, and fires were the order of the day … and night.
Back to Howard’s experience. As they cleared the cement floor of the garage, over near the wrecked battery-charger, they found his glasses under the ashes –rims broken, burned and twisted. And the buttons off his shirt, each with a neat perfect square of cloth attached, about a quarter-inch square. When the shirt came home from the hospital, we found that the cloth had come from the UNDER layer, pulled through the upper layer of the band through a tiny round hole. The prints of the buttons had been on his chest as if they had been driven IN by the blast. Evidently they had first gone in by concussion, then been sucked out by the vacuum of the explosion’s aftermath with such a pull as to tear the cloth … but how it came through that tiny hole is a mystery. Still …there was the shirt with its neatly cut holes, INSIDE, but not OUTSIDE. For weeks we matched tales of these odd phenomena of blast.
Howard must have been unconscious for twenty minutes. Then, he said, his mother — who was dead — seemed to come to him as plainly as in life, and say urgently, “Howard, YOU MUST GET OUT.” He didn’t want to move, but again she seemed to urge him so vehemently that he made an effort. The building was already starting to burn. Men were struggling to lift the massive door from the other two men. He was able to walk out by himself. That was when I also “came to”, and started in search of him and the boy. One wonders about these experiences of the presence of the dead in times of peril.
Two stories I shall never forget.
Young Bob McQueen had been paid off at the hardware, and was waiting to leave for home when the blast came. He was hurled across the store and knocked nearly senseless. But distinctly, moments after the blast, he saw a crowd of men swarm in through the shattered plate glass and start looting the showcases. How such an idea could enter at such a time, I cannot imagine. Is it a natural reversal to the jungle that is released in some under stress?
Young Bob thought at once of his employer’s records. He tried putting them in the safe but it was warped and would not close so he began carrying things out. Until the building was so far ablaze as to be dangerous, he worked, after satisfying himself that the men were receiving attention. He had looked for Howard, but thought him out of the building. Next morning it was this young boy who came to see what he could do for the families of the other employees, a devotion to duty although his employment had officially ended. Until Howard came home it was he who helped me to arrange for water, fuel, grocery delivery and all the other necessary things.
Another story of courage I shall never forget. ‘Honey’ Brown was not a well woman — very nervous and no longer young. She lived across the street from the hardware store in an old log house. Early in the fire a young mother had brought her two little children from an upstairs apartment next to the burning building, then gone back for her purse. In a few moments soldiers came to tell Mrs. Brown to run — there was dynamite there.
She was about to follow the children into the jeep the soldiers had unceremoniously bundled them into, when she thought that the young mother, returning and finding no kiddies, might assume they had followed her home. She might return to the apartment and certain death. So “Honey Brown”, as we all call her, stoutly refused to leave. “I went back in the house and brought out my two cats,” she told me. “Then I just stood there on the porch where the mother could easily see me, and expected to be blown up any second. I just prayed to God to keep me alive long enough to tell that young woman that I WAS looking after her children, and that they would be safe.” I wonder if I had been childless, as Honey was, and in expectation of violent death, could I have stood quietly thinking of another?
When it was all over, there wasn’t a place in Honey’s house where she could have escaped death or mutilation, so badly shattered was it. The young woman “blew in” with the blast, but her instinctive cry for her babies had a comforting reply.
Freaks and fragments of the incident are still told. Of the team of horses that suddenly bolted and ran, sixteen miles west, though the driver heard and saw nothing beyond the hills. Probably the earth shock they felt through their feet. Of the cups suddenly starting to sway on their hooks in a cupboard in Spirit River, forty-odd miles away, a long time after the explosion. . . but it worked out closely to the speed of sound. Of the single pane of window glass that shattered in a house twenty-six miles north. Perhaps due to the crescent hill formation south of town, certain lines of force had been reflected and converged to a focus on that single pane of glass. The story told by the man who had been directly across the street about sixty feet away, who found himself in his stocking feet on the other side of a string of boxcars on a railway siding. His only thought was, “I’ve got to go back for my shoes and rubbers”, so go he did. “There wasn’t a spark of fire where the barn had been”, he told me. “It was as bare as my hand, with a big hole like the size of a house in the middle. But there were my shoes, side by side, right where I’d been BLOWN UP out of them. I just put them on and walked away.”
There was the local service man who cabled home from England minutes after the explosion. “Are you all right”, he asked. He had heard Lord Haw-Haw interrupt a broadcast to say, “Attention. Fifteen minutes ago, Dawson Creek at the beginning of the Alcan Highway was blown up and the whole place is now on fire.” Figuring time-belts due to longitude, Lord Haw-Haw was right! A friend of ours now at Hythe heard the same announcement in a pub in Glasgow.
No responsibility for the disaster was ever fixed. A charge of negligence was laid against the contractor who leased the building but not against sub-contractors whose agents placed the explosives in the portion they had sub-leased. The charge was not sustained, and was not further pressed.
Was the fire, as my husband thinks, due to a battery charger being hooked up to inadequate wiring in the corner of the building where I first saw the flames break out? Was it the deliberate vengeance of some construction workers who had threatened to burn the village in the excitement over a buddy of theirs who perished in the fire that took the police barracks in which a prisoner was locked in the cell, while “hard-boiled” Spinney, the trucker, wept outside, and begged and begged in vain to be allowed to hook his winch truck into the cell-cage through a window, and pull it bodily through the wall?
Or was little, far-frontier Dawson Creek one tiny link in the world-wide chain of planned sabotage that creatures like Lord Haw-Haw could finger for their foul purposes?
Who could ever tell?