Tyson Peers built his “Viking house” in woods near his home in Hawkesbury, Ont., to withstand just about anything, but he didn’t know how soon it would be put to the ultimate test.
On the afternoon of May 21, Peers, 21, an avid outdoorsman who posts “bushcraft” videos of his wilderness exploits on YouTube, was working on the structure with his younger brother Cam Deslauriers, 12, and Cam’s friend Miguel Larocque, 11.
The boys, who hadn’t seen the hut before that day, were helping Peers collect rocks to build a chimney when he received a severe thunderstorm alert on his phone. As the sky darkened and panic began to set in, Peers recorded a harrowing video of what happened next.
“I think it’s a tornado,” Peers tells the boys in French. One of the boys says he’s leaving. “We can’t, it’s too late!” Peers shouts, ordering the boys into the unfinished shelter.
Peers continues recording as trees come crashing down outside the hut. “Tornado! Stay low! Stay low!” he screams as the boys cry out in terror.
“Please God, please, please!” they yell in a mix of French and English as more trees fall. “Stay! Stay! Stay!” Peers keeps ordering the boys.
‘The cabin saved us’
After about two terrifying minutes, the storm passes and Peers eventually emerges to survey the destruction. Trees were down everywhere, including two that had fallen directly on the shelter.
Leaving their bikes behind, Peers and the boys spend the next 45 minutes scrambling over fallen trees to their home, where France Paquette is waiting in the driveway for her sons. With cellular service knocked out by the storm, Peers had been unable to call her to let her know they were OK.
“The cabin saved us,” Peers tells Paquette in French as she sobs with relief.
The right decision
“We wanted to leave and run, but it was too late. It was right on top of us,” Peers later told Radio-Canada’s Denis Babin.
“That was the decision I took, and it turned out to be the best decision because we would have died.”
As they cowered in the shelter, Peers held onto the boys until the storm finally passed.
I’m not a believer in God, but at that moment I was believing.– Tyson Peers
“We were praying for God and we were scared and we started crying a little bit,” Larocque said. “That was a really good decision to stay in the shelter.”
Peers said he was frightened, too.
“It was panic,” he said. “I’m not a believer in God, but at that moment I was believing. We got very lucky.”
Paquette said as terrified as she was for her sons’ safety, she was “200 per cent” confident that Peers would make the right decisions.
“It’s a horrible feeling, but I knew in my heart that my oldest would have taken care of his younger brother and friend with his experience in the woods and quick thinking,” she said.
“I let it all out, as you can see on the video. I was just happy for them to come back home safely and alive.”
Peers’s hut is made from branches and sticks he’d cut from fallen trees. It has a sod roof, a sunken floor and is open to the elements at either end.
Given how well the simple wood structure withstood everything nature threw at it that day, Paquette said she’s encouraging her son to turn his passion for building into a career.
“Go in civil engineering, it’s time!” she said. “You have your proof right there.”
Storm was deadly
The powerful derecho storm that swept across Ontario and Quebec caused catastrophic damage, downing thousands of trees and knocking out hydro to a record number of customers, some of whom are still without power.
The storm also killed at least 10 people, mostly from falling trees and branches.
Researchers with Western University’s Northern Tornadoes Project say an intense downburst with winds peaking at 190 km/h hit south Ottawa that Saturday, not a tornado.
They haven’t yet determined whether a tornado struck east of the capital, including Hawkesbury, but Peers said he’s positive that’s what it was.
“That was not a thunderstorm. That was a damn tornado,” he said.