55 years ago: The day Hurricane Debbie came to Derry

Residents of Elmwood Terrace survey the damage caused by Hurricane Debbie.
Residents of Elmwood Terrace survey the damage caused by Hurricane Debbie.

Today marks the 55th anniversary of an incident that shook Derry to its very foundations.

On Saturday, September 16, 1961, Hurricane Debbie swept into Derry, levelling everyone and everything that got in its way.

For days after, Derry and the rest of the North West counted the cost of the tail-lash of Hurricane Debbie which swept the country bringing tragedy, personal injury and havoc to property in its trail.

Across the country, fifteen people died in the storm. In counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, the death toll was five.

23-years-old Susan McDermott, of Carrickanee, Inch Island, was cycling home from her work at Burt when she was struck by the branch of a falling tree. She died almost immediately.

William Heighway, a 17-year-old farm-hand originally from Culmore but employed on the estate of Major J.D. Chichester-Clarke MP, Moyola Park, Castledawson, was drowned in the Moyola River during the gale.

It’s believed the teenager had just got into a rowing boat when it capsized. The oars were seen coming over the weir followed by the young man’s body.

At its peak, at around 1.30 p.m., the winds reached 103 miles per hour.

This was the highest ever recorded at Ballykelly RAF Station since it went into operation in the early months of World War II.

Throughout the duration of the gale, winds ranged from 80 to 90 miles per hour.

Irish Street in the Waterside suffered most in the hurricane.

“It was like a miniature blitz,” said one resident whose home was wrecked when struck by sections of a flying roof lifted by the storm from a nearby school.

The storm inflicted damage in practically every street in the city.

Thousands of slates fell, windows were blown out, ridge tiles and other parts of houses were dislodged and scores of trees were uprooted.

The wind raged for several hours, but the greatest damage occurred within a five minute period at the height of the storm when, according to the ‘Journal’, the gale took on all the appearances of a “whirlwind”.

It was at this stage that an aluminium roof over the rear section of Clondermott School was lifted into the air with its supports attached to it.

Part of it struck the school water tower while another part smashed through the steel fencing and brickwork bounding the school at Irish Street, crossing the road and tearing down a lamppost.

Another section of uprooted roof devastated an end house in Irish Street. Fortunately, this was an unoccupied one-storey building.

More than 50 people were treated at Altnagelvin Hospital for injuries sustained during the gale.

The hospital itself fell victim to the gale-force winds. At one stage, its power supply was cut off and emergency generators driven by diesel engines had to be brought into action.

Many windows in the 13-storey building were blown in, and nurses in the upper storeys had to be spend a lot of time calming patients frightened by the gale.

Two car parked at the hospital were hurled a distance of 40 yards while visitors arriving by bus were knocked off their feet as they made their way up the driveway.

When St. Columb’s Hospital became isolated through falling trees blocking the approaches, policemen took off their coats and helped Derry Corporation employees in the work of removing the trees.

Parts of the rural district, including Eglinton and Ardmore, had an electricity blackout.

When Edward McDermott, of Walker’s Place, heard bricks falling from the chimney stack of his home, he and his wife and four children went to a friend’s house at Nailors Row.

Less than an hour later, the chimney stack of their house crashed through the roof into an upstairs room.

For quite a while during the gale, most of the roads in and out of Derry were blocked by fallen trees.

HMS Sea Eagle sent a working party of thirty ratings to help clear the Limavady Road, where 22 trees fell in a half mile stretch.

All in all, Hurricane Debbie was a one-off - a natural phenomenon. Compared to the viciousness of Debbie, recent gales have been but mere gusts.