Law enforcement officers recall fear while on duty during tornadoes
By Jim Titsworth
Independent Staff Writer
Men who normally wouldn't admit to fear think nothing about talking of their fears the night of June 3, 1980.
Hall County Sheriff Emmett Arnett was the chief deputy that night when his pager summoned him to duty at the Emergency Operating Center in the City Hall basement.
The warning siren in Capital Heights wasn't working and deputies were sent into the area to warn people with the public address systems in their cars.
The first tornado touched down near Taylor Ranch at 8:45 p.m. ''(Former deputy) Kelly Buck was near Taylor's Ranch helping some people with car trouble (on Highway 2). He got them loaded up in his car, but even with the brakes on it was being dragged backwards,'' Arnett recalled. The rear window also was sucked out of Buck's car.
Arnett said he had a helpless feeling listening to the changing, dangerous situations while he was safe in the EOC.
Sgt. Bill Holloway, now a captain with the Grand Island Police Department, remembered garbage cans slamming into the side of his car. ''They sounded like cannons,'' he said. When asked if he was afraid, Holloway slowly nodded his head and acknowledged, ''Absolutely.''
Search and rescue
Trying to flee the northwest Grand Island tornado, which touched down at 9:30 p.m., Holloway never returned to the station as he became involved in search and rescue operations after the first three tornadoes subsided.
That night and the next day, police officers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters worked on search and rescue operations. Many of them worked on as they worried about their own families that had been in tornadodamaged areas that wild night.
Investigator Rick Ressel was a street patrol officer then. He remembered his personal fear after he was sent to a silent alarm at Skate Island. There was no electricity, and consequently no lights. ''It was extremely dark extremely. There was rain mixed with hail.
''I knew there was a tornado in town. There was a fear level involved,'' Ressel said.
Skate Island was a magnet that drew police and firefighters like flecks of metal. Lt. Ron Miller, a firefighter, had a ladder truck there. He remembered heading for Skate Island and noticing the heavy winds. ''Nothing unusual,'' he said.
He went through the business and decided that the alarm was set off by the storm.
'Get out here'
Then Miller heard his driver, Jerry Sevy, call him on the portable radio: ''You better get out here double quick.'' Miller said he and Sevy watched as a tornado came in from the northwest, ''over the Soldiers and Sailors Home'' and then dipped to the ground.
Miller also remembered trying to put a canvas cover back on the 50,000pound ladder truck.
''It was going like this,'' he said, rocking back and forth with his arms apart, holding an imaginary, 10-year-old canvas.
Arnett said he already was overwhelmed with calls.
''What really scared me was listening to Bill Lawrey saying, 'There's one chasing me down Capital Avenue. I can see the fire as the tornado hits the wires,''' Arnett said.
The tornado also tore down the sheriff's antenna, and because of the low-band frequency used, radio calls from Arizona and New Mexico were skipping all the way here.
''We could barely talk to ourselves,'' Arnett said. He also had to run outside to his car to send radio messages, because the sheriff's antenna was gone.
After the 9:30 p.m. tornado tore through northwestern Grand Island, search and rescue operations began.
Houses blown out
Firefighter Gary Wood remembered that the ''houses were blown out on the bottoms.'' Ressel remembered touching one wall ''and it creaked.''
''Our main concern was the vets home,'' Wood said, having watched the tornado dip into that area. ''There are a lot of old people there, but no one really was hurt.''
During the recovery operations, Ressel remembered one man searching through the rubble of his apartment: ''He's saying 'Where's my stereo where's my stereo?''' Shortly afterward Ressel injured his back and went to the hospital emergency room. ''I remember the hustle and bustle there a lot of hustle and bustle.''
Then a tornado slammed into the Eagles Lake area at 10:16 p.m., tracked down East Bismark and made a right onto South Locust Street.
Ressel, at the emergency room, had his portable radio with him and listened as two fellow patrolmen were caught near the tornado. ''They were talking about houses exploding around them. You could hear the stress and edge in their voices,'' Ressel said.
Wood remembered former Fire Chief George Arnett summoning firefighters from the northwest area to South Locust. ''George said it's bad, but I never expected it to be that bad.''
It took them more than an hour to find their way into the South Locust area because of trees blocking the street, Miller said. The only way they could find their way was to count the number of blocks because all the landmarks and street signs were gone.
''Out there looking at all those other houses, I started thinking about why am I out here while my wife and kids are at home,'' Miller said.
His house is near Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppe, which was destroyed, but his house only suffered about $7,000 damage.
The biggest impact on Miller was walking through the old Meves Bowl. ''You can't see, and you run into a car inside. I knew it was bad.''
The car also had a 2-by-4 through both tires, and one of them was still inflated.
Miller also thought he'd pulled up to a major disaster at the Pagoda Lounge, because ''shoes were scattered all over.'' Then he learned there was a shoe store next door.
At Cherry and Bismark, a high-pressure gas pipe kept venting. Wood said it seemed like it whistled all night. ''Every time I thought another tornado was coming in.'' Local firefighters, police and deputies worked through the night and then went on 12-hour shifts. But there was plenty of help.
''It showed us what Nebraskans were all about,'' Arnett said. ''Police and fire departments came in from all over. We really didn't have to ask for help.''