Caught in an F2 tornado

The evening of August 24 was dark and rainy, but not unlike other rainy evenings in Windsor, Canada. And, once inside Kautex’s Windsor facility, between the rhythmic sound of the machines, the carefully timed dance of the robots and the general “buzz” of the production floor, one quickly forgets the outside environment.

Bill Arquette was one such employee. A second shift process supervisor at KOC, Bill left the production floor to talk to the shipping supervisor about a potential shortage of customer racks. It was only then that he noticed the heavy rain, lightning and thunder.

Knowing that the power has a tendency to go out in the facility during a storm, Bill headed back to the production area to check on his team. True to form, the next clap of thunder was accompanied by a flicker of the lights that left the facility in shadowy darkness for a few moments.

A brief period of time - but enough to wreak havoc on the machines extruding parison and robots caught mid-stream in the cooling fixtures.

The team knew the drill. With some jovial cries of, “Well, hey, I guess its break time now,” many employees moved to the cafeteria to wait for the process techs, electrician and maintenance teams to get the machines back on line. Soon, about 10 people were left on the floor while the rest watched the storm from the safety of the cafeteria windows.

Bill went to Line 2 first and stopped to help out a process tech bringing the machine back online.

“I heard what sounded like a pack of wolves…and asked what the noise was,” said Bill, recounting the experience. “For a second, I thought a 747 had crashed into the building before I heard a loud ‘bang” and felt a strong wind. I looked up to see the roof of the building being torn off above my head.” Within a few seconds, the wind disappeared, taking with it a large portion of the roof and west and north walls of the production area. “It was then that I realized we were in the middle of a tornado.”

Split second decisions

“Of course,” continued Bill, my first thought was to head to the shelter but I stopped after a few steps and said, ‘I can’t go there; I’m the shift supervisor – I need to make sure everyone is alright.’”

This proved more difficult than he might have imagined. The RTO (a list of employees who reported to work that night) had been on his desk….but was now part of the debris and wreckage left by the storm. Water was pouring into the plant – from the unrelenting storm which now emptied directly into the roofless facility and from the automatic sprinkler system that was set off.

Bill began running up and down the lines of the plant to ensure everyone had evacuated the damaged production area. He called emergency services and several co-workers as well. Then, he gathered everyone outside at the agreed-to “rallying point” for emergencies and started asking employees, area by area if their co-workers were all there. “Line 2,” he called out in the dusky night. Who was on Line 2, raise your hands. OK, now look around – are all your co-workers here?’ ‘Line 3….’”

Of about 50 people who were there that evening, there were no fatalities and four individuals were sent to the hospital with minor injuries.

But how to rebuild?

Later that evening, when Steve Phillips, Director of Operations, KOC, returned to the plant through the numerous police barricades, he asked if every employee was safe and accounted for. Only then, after knowing the team was safe, did he venture to look inside the facility.

“I couldn’t enter because of the risk of electric shock,” he said. “But, from the doorway, shining a large flashlight about the area, the devastation was clear. It looked like a bombed out building…a scene of devastation.”

The floors were covered in water, the moonlight entering the facility casting an eerie glow on the quiet machines, the destruction to the roof, walls and beams casting dark shadows.

“On one hand, I was filled with a sense of relief, because I knew there were no fatalities,” Steve said. “On the other, peering into the haunting darkness, I had no idea of the work we had in front of us to rebuild our plant.”

Top L-R: The day after the destruction and two weeks later; Bottom L-R; Kautex Windsor employees back at work 6 days after the tornado; Steve Phillips, Director, Operators, shows CEO Joerg Rautenstrauch the extent of the damage.