When a hurricane swept through Toronto, this firefighter made the heartbreaking first rescue attempt

Sixty-three years after Hurricane Hazel devastated Toronto, a firefighter on the front lines of the rescue shares his story of the storm's first victims.

Hurricane Hazel caused 81 deaths and more than $1B in damages in 2017 dollars

On the wet and windy evening of Oct. 15, 1954, Ken Maxwell was sitting in his Etobicoke firehall when he heard screams come across his truck's radio.

Outside, Hurricane Hazel was bearing down on the city, and Maxwell's crew was under strict orders from the fire chief to leave the station only under emergency circumstances.

The fire department was to take no unnecessary risks in the storm, which had already claimed more than 400 lives in Haiti and close to 100 in the United States. As it spiralled towards Canada, Hazel merged with a cold front, intensifying the system.

High tides whipped up by Hurricane Hazel shattered boats and buildings in Swansboro, North Carolina as the storm reached the Atlantic seaboard. (Associated Press)

With the storm on Toronto's doorstep, a crew of volunteer firefighters had descended the banks of the Humber River that night to rescue the occupants of a car that was being battered by waves. Soon after, they needed a rescue themselves.

"These guys were screaming for help," said Maxwell, who was 25 at the time.

After waiting for an OK from police, who were charged with leading emergency calls at the time, Maxwell's captain Jack Smith eventually decided they could wait no longer.

"Jack said, 'That's it we're going,'" he remembered.

Maxwell grew up swimming in the Humber, but when he and his crew arrived that night, he was met with a sight unlike anything he'd ever seen.

"The river should have been a couple thousand yards away from us," he recalled. "But it was up over the bank and now coming up the hill."

Retired firefighter Ken Maxwell responded to a call from the volunteer firefighters. They ended up dying in the storm. (Frédéric Lacelle/Radio-Canada)
Five volunteer firefighters of the Kingsway-Lambton station became the first victims of Hurricane Hazel. (Toronto Fire Services)

After a month of heavy rain, the ground was already heavily saturated when Hazel slammed the city. An estimate from Environment and Climate Change Canada says the runoff raised river levels by six to eight metres that night.

With the river rising, Maxwell saw the lights of the volunteer fire truck, but its five-man crew was already trapped and being steadily inundated with rushing water.

When Maxwell and his team dropped a small boat into the river for the rescue, the water ripped it from their hands.

"We put it in the water and all of a sudden, it was gone," Maxwell, who's now 88, remembered.

The volunteer fire truck was next.

"All of a sudden the fire truck lifted up, and it went up in the air about four feet ... and that's when they yelled, they all yelled."

Moments later, the truck flipped over. Sixty-three years later, Maxwell still vividly remembers the gut-wrenching sight of seeing five men swept into the river.

"They slid off the back of the truck and they never said a word," he said, fighting back tears.

Workers pull a fire truck out of the Humber River a day after it was swept into the water with five volunteer firefighters on board. (York University)
A young girl holds a sign asking would-be donors for contributions to the families of the perished firefighters. (Getty Images)

First victims

The five volunteer firefighters are believed to be the first of 81 people who perished in Toronto during Hurricane Hazel. One of their bodies was never recovered.

Today, a plaque honouring the firefighters sits a block away from the river on Prince Edward Boulevard.

A plaque commemorating the volunteer firefighters who died in the storm. (Frédéric Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

By the time it passed, Hazel had dumped as much as 225 millimetres of rain on the city, ripping down bridges and flooding homes. Damages were estimated at $100 million — that's more than $1 billion in 2017 dollars.

The brimming Humber River, near Dundas Street following the storm. (Toronto Public Library)

Despite the tragedy occurring just one year after he became a full-time firefighter, Maxwell went on to have a long career with the Etobicoke fire department.

"As I say, there's good days and there's bad days," he said. "I like to remember the good ones."

With files from Serge Olivier