'My family is going to die here': Gatineau father recalls tornado terror

As a tornado shredded his Gatineau, Que., apartment Friday afternoon, James Widder gripped his four-year-old daughter by her fingertips, terrified she'd be torn from his grasp.

Friday's tornado nearly tore James Widder's daughter, 4, from his grasp

James Widder's daughter almost blew away

4 years ago
Duration 0:19
A Gatineau family was almost torn apart by Friday's tornado as it hit their apartment.

As a tornado shredded his Gatineau, Que., apartment Friday afternoon, James Widder gripped his four-year-old daughter by her fingertips, terrified the small child would be torn from his grasp.

"When [the tornado] ripped our roof, my daughter went flying off. I was holding her hand in the air and I almost let go. She was slipping," he said that afternoon, not long after an EF3 tornado with winds that may have peaked at 265 km/h tore across the Ottawa River from Dunrobin, where it had flattened houses and injured at least four.

"I said, 'If she's going to die, I'm going to die with her.' Then [the tornado] finally passed."

'We're going to die together'

4 years ago
Duration 0:43
James Widdner returns to his block for the first time since Friday's tornado.

On Sunday, he returned for the first time to the scene on rue Georges-Bilodeau in the city's Mont-Bleu neighbourhood with the CBC's Rosemary Barton.

Widder said he'd been talking to his mother on the phone when he saw the storm approach. He paused to take a few pictures to send to her.

"As I was sending it to her my daughter came banging on the door, saying, 'Daddy, it looks like a tornado is coming!' And I said, 'No, there's no tornado,'" Widder recalled.

"I hit send, the next thing I know [there was a] wind gust, rain started — all of a sudden it all came spiralling down."

This is one of the last photos James Widder took of an approaching storm before it blew through his apartment. (James Widder)

Spying his bed and dresser through a missing wall on Sunday brought back the terror.

"It all happened so fast, but when you're actually in it, it felt like forever," he said.

"I just thought to myself, this is it. My family is going to die here. We're going to die together."

Widder said he doesn't know if or when his family will be able to recover their belongings from the heavily damaged unit.

He said his youngest daughter is having trouble sleeping, but he feels lucky they're all alive.

"The fact we all survived is a total miracle."

James Widder's family lost everything in the storm. He's hoping they might eventually be allowed to try to salvage some clothes and family artifacts. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)
The view from James Widder's Gatineau, Que., apartment after Friday's tornado tore the building apart. (Supplied)