PILGER, Neb. – 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.
Much of the community was gone and two people had died. The disaster, delivered by twin twisters rare in how forcefully they traveled side by side for an extended period, left some residents 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.
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, David A. Herout, 74, of Clarkson, Nebraska. He died 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. The tornado destroyed much of the downtown, leaving piles of bricks that had been storefronts in the street. Grain bins on the south end of Main Street were swept away, and others remained crumpled on the ground. Between 45 and 50 homes in Pilger were demolished.
Homes south and west of downtown fared even worse, with most reduced to debris or gone entirely.