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Tornadoes flatten tiny rural Nebraska town, 2 dead

By Josh Funk

PILGER, Neb. (AP) -- As two giant tornadoes bore down on this tiny farming town in northeast Nebraska, Trey Wisniewski heard the storm sirens, glanced out at the blackening sky and rushed with his wife into their basement.

"My wife was holding our animals, and I was holding on to my wife. We could feel the suction try to pull us out of there," he said Tuesday.

Suddenly, their house was gone, leaving them to dodge debris that rained down upon them. And then, the storm that hit so suddenly Monday afternoon was gone, allowing them to emerge and see what was left of the 350-person farming town of Pilger.

They found that much of the community was gone and two people had died. The disaster, delivered by twin twisters rare in how forcefully they travelled side by side for an extended period, left some townsfolk doubting whether the town could rebuild, even as they marveled that the death toll hadn't been worse.

"This is by far the worst thing I've ever seen as governor," said Gov. Dave Heineman, who flew over Pilger in a helicopter Tuesday morning and then walked through the town, trailed by reporters.

One of those killed was a 5-year-old girl, Calista Dixon, said Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger. Cody Murphree, the girl's brother, said in a statement that his mother, 42-year-old Kandi Murphree, was in a medically induced coma in Omaha after the tornado destroyed their home.

The other fatality was a motorist killed during the storm, David A. Herout, 74, of Clarkson, Nebraska. He died in Cuming County, a few miles east of Pilger.

At least 19 people were taken to hospitals.

Up to 75 percent of the buildings in Pilger were heavily damaged or destroyed. That included the grain co-op, bank, library, middle school, city offices and fire department.

The tornado destroyed much of the small downtown, leaving piles of bricks that had been storefronts in the street. Several grain bins on the south end of Main Street were swept away, and others remained crumpled on the ground.

From the street, residents walking through their town could peer directly into a mortuary and bank.

Homes south and west of downtown fared even worse, with most reduced to piles of debris or gone entirely.

"I am amazed that ... out of all of this destruction only two people were killed," Wisniewski said.

While the governor said he was confident the community would rebuild, cafe owner Linda Oertwich wasn't so sure.

"Pilger's too small and the devastation in these homes will cost too much to rebuild," said Oertwich, who will decide whether to rebuild her Village Bar and Cafe after hearing from her insurance company.

The tornado swept away the house Larry Nelson, 73, had lived in for 23 years, leaving nothing but the cinderblock foundation. Because he didn't have a basement, Nelson rushed to a neighbor's house when sirens sounded.

"I'm grateful that I was over there," Nelson said, pointing to his neighbor's house.

The storm was part of a larger system that tracked across the nation's midsection Monday.

Pilger was hit by one of twin twisters, which roared for miles through northeast Nebraska. The tornadoes were of roughly equal size, about a mile apart. The northern twister, confirmed as an EF4 tornado, struck the town before the two merged, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm appears to have produced four tornadoes in all, said Van DeWald, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska.

It was the size and intensity of the dual tornadoes that made them rare, said Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher, noting that usually one tornado weakens and shrinks in such a situation.

Dutcher said a lack of thunderstorms helped increase the tornadoes' strength because they had no competition for wind and moisture in the atmosphere.

"It speaks wonders about the amount of instability that was in the atmosphere," Dutcher said. "This was a highly volatile situation where once something got going, it really got going."

Crews planned to examine the area Tuesday to determine the intensity of the twin tornadoes, said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska.

Authorities said the first tornado touched down around 3:45 p.m. and downed several power lines before it leveled a farmhouse. The second tornado was spotted southwest of Pilger, according to the Stanton County Sheriff's Office. Shortly afterward, the town suffered a "direct hit" that leveled several buildings, including the Fire Department building.

Heineman declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was preparing to assist local emergency responders and help with the cleanup. A shelter for displaced residents was established at Wisner-Pilger Jr.-Sr. High School in nearby Wisner.

Tornadoes also caused damage in Cuming and Wayne counties, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a news release. Meteorologists also tracked a reported tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska.


Associated Press writer Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
sapphierneb1 June 17 2014 at 2:48 PM

Alright you 'idiots' ... Small farming communities like this throughout America's Midwest is what keeps you fed & clothed every day of your life. We work hard to help our families, neighbors, & this nation, by not only growing your food, the raw materials for your clothes, but our young men and women have the highest volunteer rate for the US Military. And, YES, we all do attend church every week. The reason the death toll isn't higher because all of the residents took shelter in their basements (underground storm shelters) and rode out the storm. Why don't you all just lay off for bit? Go back to your cissy office job ....

Flag Reply +74 rate up
28 replies
YourFtr June 17 2014 at 12:37 PM

Meanwhile Obama approves 100 million for the east coast for his voting enclaves;
while ignoring the tornado plagued midwestern areas........!!??

Flag Reply +39 rate up
25 replies
suretowin1941 June 17 2014 at 1:38 PM

Some of the comments being made here are completely asinine, out of line, disrespectful and downright stupid!!!
Just remember, "There but by the Grace of God go I.!!"

Flag Reply +38 rate up
3 replies
tmohr17415 June 17 2014 at 12:37 PM

Come on aol!!

Take down the picture of the little girl.

Flag Reply +27 rate up
5 replies
d_414 June 17 2014 at 12:55 PM

that's so sad, keep these people in your prayers especially the family that lost the little girl

Flag Reply +21 rate up
hq129x June 17 2014 at 5:40 PM

Screw foreign aid. Isn't it about time we take care of our own? Oh but wait, that's common sense and Washington has none of it.

Flag Reply +14 rate up
1 reply
Candice hq129x June 18 2014 at 7:53 AM

No the red states don't want big govt. so don't cry now when you need it.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
3 replies
Mike June 17 2014 at 12:53 PM

If Nebraska would cease being a hate state, God would stop sending them tornados.

Flag Reply +11 rate up
27 replies
bjredmond64 June 17 2014 at 12:14 PM

and it just gets weirder and weirder. Jesus is at the door.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
10 replies
botcheditagain000 June 17 2014 at 12:40 PM

I guess God was really pissed at those people...by the looks of them it's their glutony that did them in.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
13 replies
kmcc895370 June 17 2014 at 12:28 PM

The woman in the flower print dress is really a super hero who flys and fights tornadoes! Her name is Mama 'Nado and she's holding the top secret anti-tornado pulse weapon which reverses polarity of a tornado's molecules and makes it 'unwind' itself. In the picture she is shown right after rescuing a Sheriff from the deadly tornado!

Flag Reply +6 rate up
4 replies
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