Residents left behind in Fort McMurray’s worst disaster
By DAWN BOOTH, Connect Weekly
After a month of trauma and heartache, Wood Buffalo residents will soon begin to make their way back to assess the damage from one of the worst wildfire disasters in Canadian history.
Thousands of residents will return already knowing what the fire has caused to their homes, others will not. There’s been an uncertainty of how many people will return to the community, and this may not unveil itself for several months.
Sadly, 15-year-old Emily Ryan and 19-year-old Aaron Hodgson will not be among the thousands to return, as they were unable to escape during the evacuations.
On May 4, the two family relatives were driving together en route to Stony Plain, outside of Edmonton, from the Saprae Creek area. They died on Highway 881, after their SUV collided with a logging truck near Lac La Biche.
Both Ryan and Hodgson were born at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. Ryan was a grade nine student at Composite High School and Hodgson had returned to the city last year to be with his father Curtis Hodgson, after living in St. Catharines, Ontario with his mother for over a decade.
The Ryan family has shared with Connect Weekly that they wish to hold a life celebration for the two in Fort McMurray in the future.
In a moment’s time
Emily’s mother remembers the birth of her triplets, and the day no parent should encounter
Sonya Ryan, 42, was among the millions of spectators around the world watching the news coverage from Fort McMurray unfold earlier this month.
Prior to the wildfire, Sonya was a long-time resident of Fort McMurray. She moved to the Edmonton area in 2013, after the divorce between her and Cranley Ryan, who is the Deputy Fire Chief of Saprae Creek.
Due to the high-cost of Fort McMurray living, the mother of five made the difficult decision to move south on her own. It was a decision she said she made knowing her children were getting closer to the transition age. She hoped the new place could provide them with the opportunity to be close to her if they chose to venture off for a higher education or future employment.
Connect Weekly met with Sonya on May 21 at her new home in Spruce Grove, alongside family members: mother Marion Butt, her cousin Elizabeth Gionet and her cousin’s husband Gerry Gionet.
She reminisced the birth of her triplets: Emily, Lucas and Abby on December 1, 2000. She shared memories of Dr. K. P. Wong, and how her tight-knitted family members (all local residents descended from Newfoundland) came together to help her and Cranley raise their bundle of three, and the triplets’ two older sisters.
“Dr. Wong was the king of doctors. He wanted to deliver them, so he pulled me in and said: ‘They are going to be born here because in all my years I haven’t delivered triplets.’ Everyone in the hospital became like family to me,” she said with excitement. “And with my large family close, we always had so much help surrounding us.”
Emily was the first of the triplets to be born. Sonya remembers feeling frightened when the hospital staff discovered complications.
“They did x-rays of her chest and said she had signs of problems in her heart and were talking about sending her to Calgary, but it turned out to be a shadow on the x-ray. They then said she had apnea,” Sonya recalled.
Emily’s breathing issue resolved when the nurses took turns rotating her baby brother and sister in the incubator with her.
“The touch of them kept her alive. That is Emily. Emily needs more hugs. Emily needs more love,” Sonya said trembling with emotion.
The family members said the birth of the triplets was big news in Fort McMurray at the time. Now, 15 years later, their sweet Emily has sadly made headlines again at a global scale for being one of the only two Fort McMurray residents unable to evacuate with the thousands of others.
Sonya was at her mother’s home in Stony Plain when she received the official devastating message on May 4. They were busy preparing a traditional homemade meal for their family members and friends who were evacuating – uniting at this location was a part of their escape plan.
“I had no fear whatsoever because I knew Cranley would get them where they were supposed to be with the right amount of time. He wasn’t going to put them in any danger. They weren’t even evacuated in their area, but he was like: ‘Just go. It’s going to happen,’” she explained of the day.
Cranley was working on extinguishing the fire with fellow firefighters in the city, while the triplets were with their stepmother Melonie Matthews-Ryan, and other family members, driving south in separate vehicles.
“We were waiting, and waiting. I tried to phone and had no answer.” – Sonya Ryan
“We were waiting, and waiting. I tried to phone and had no answer. And then, I phoned again, one of the kids answered and they were like: ‘Mom.’ I heard Mel say, ‘We will have to call her back’, and then they were gone. I tried to call back and no answer. It already happened, I guess,” Sonya shared with breaks of remorseful cries.
“We were so worried about our family and Fort McMurray was burning, and we wondered if everyone was going to get out. We were trying to get everyone together in one place,” Sonya said.
With no response from her children, Sonya anxiously waited. She went outside to move her vehicle to make more space in the driveway as she was expecting many to arrive. Moments later, a police van pulled up. Two officers got out and came towards her.
“They asked me if I was Sonya Ryan and I was like…” She paused. “Oh my god, I can’t take it,” she cried.
“And then those two ladies came walking from that van, my dad said he knew. It was just like in a movie when they do that, when they come to tell you. The 88,000 residents who were able to escape. It’s a miracle. After I talked to Cranley, he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ and I said: ‘Don’t say sorry, it’s not your fault’. He’s such a great dad.”
The next day, the rest of her family and friends had arrived.
“The world stopped,” Sonya said. “For a couple of days, I was like what’s going on. And then, the change happened. Just the people, the love and everyone there. I could feel myself letting myself go, I could hear my daughter’s voice telling me to keep pushing to go forward.”
Sonya took the push forward into a positive direction and has since established The Emily Ryan Foundation in honour of her daughter.
“She wanted to become a teacher, and then talked about being a nurse, and that turned into her wanting to teach nursing,” Sonya said of her daughter’s aspirations. “She was theatrical and artsy. She wanted to travel. Most of all, she loved books.”
The Emily Ryan Foundation is in its early, start-up stages. (Check out the next edition of Connect Weekly for the full story on the program and how to take part.) Sonya has already launched the Don’t Dog Ear It program in multiple areas in the Spruce Grove area and hopes to expand it province-wide, and most importantly, in Fort McMurray.
The program will be a part of the Foundation’s mandate and have a take-a-book, leave-a-book approach. Don’t Dog Ear It was adapted as the title because Emily loved books and would not lend her books out to friends if she thought they would bend the pages or “dog ear it.”
“When you sit and think about what really happened, it’s so traumatic. It did happen. But I feel like you need to get lost in a book. Your mind needs time to absorb,” she explained. “Maybe I haven’t absorbed it all yet.”
– Article as shown in Connect’s Special Edition – First Issue After the Wildfire – Released May 28, 2016 –