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Twenty-five Years
Emergency responders saw strange, sad sights

By Sarah Schulz

Two farm hogs hunkered down in the middle of a county road.
For Jim Castleberry, it was just one of the strange things he witnessed in the aftermath of the storm.

For Bonnie Arnold, it was a garden hose so tangled in a tandem bike that both had to be discarded.

For Jim Rowell, it was returning a bath towel to its rack while nothing outside the bathroom remained standing.

Everyone who lived in Grand Island the summer of 1980 seems to have a tornado war story. For local emergency responders, digging through the debris and restoring order resulted in a dizzying array of emotions -- some of which make them smile today.

Jim Castleberry

Castleberry had been a Hall County sheriff's deputy for 10 months when the tornadoes struck.

He had been in Lexington fishing for most of the day, and after returning to his home in Wood River, he watched the clouds building up over Grand Island.

"And it looked pretty ominous," he said.

When sirens sounded, he headed to work. Shortly after 8:30 p.m., the first tornado tore through northwest Grand Island.

Castleberry picked his way through the city, clearing homes and checking for injured people. By midnight, he and another deputy found themselves unable to drive west, so they moved to the east and south.

They came across the pigs about 6 a.m. on Schimmer Road about 100 yards west of Stuhr Road.

"The road was hard-packed gravel with soft dirt beneath," he said. "These two huge farm sows had dug into the road half to two-thirds of the way below ground level. We kicked them to see if they were alive, and they made all kinds of farm pig noises and got up and walked away."

Just the memory makes Castleberry laugh. The memory of watching neighbors care for each other also brings a smile to his face.

However, the serious far outweighed any humor -- downed power lines, loss of life and property, and the heat had deputies responding to a number of attempted suicides in the days after the storm.

The morning of June 4 was the hardest. Castleberry had to do a death notification to the brother of a man who died in the Pagoda Lounge.

Bonnie Arnold

Helping the dazed who had nowhere to go became Bonnie Arnold's mission after the storms began.

Just after the first tornado touched down, Arnold, the Sheriff's Department's office manager, went to work so the office would be staffed if people came in for help.

Because phone lines were down and buildings were destroyed, people came into the office. She took them to the release area of the jail, where they could huddle together under blankets until family members and friends could be located.

"There were whole families, little kids, pets," she said.

Her own son remained at home, taking refuge in the lower level of the family's split-level, Riverside-area home. He had tried to go to the neighbor's home, but the wind sucked the door shut just as he got it open. She instructed him to stay downstairs.

The family's deck pulled away from their home, and the heavy deck furniture blew away. A 2-by-4 came through the side of the house, and windows on the east wall were broken.

During the cleanup, Arnold's husband feared a water main had been broken when he saw water pouring out of an outdoor spigot. Instead, the high winds had merely turned the faucet on, she said.

It was in those days that they came across the garden hose and bicycle that had become one.

Jim Rowell

As with many emergency responders working on June 3, firefighter Jim Rowell hurried into the quickly darkening night in response to a problem caused by the most powerful storm ever to strike the city.

Rowell and several fellow firefighters left Station 2 for Skate Island due to a fire alarm. As they passed the Senior High tennis courts, the wind lifted the old ladder truck, with its 100-foot aerial ladder, off the ground briefly, and floated it into the other lane.

"That was pretty exciting," he said.

Once they determined there was no fire at Skate Island, Rowell and his co-workers drove around town to see if anyone needed immediate assistance. They also directed a number of people to extinguish the candles they were using for light in case gas lines were cracked.

During one home search, Rowell, who is now the department's chief, went to a home where only the foundation and bathroom walls remained. He went into the bathroom and found a rack of clean towels. He used one to wipe his face, folded it and hung it back on the rack. He laughed as he recalled the absurdity of the action.

Gregg Ahlers

Just after the first twister touched down, Gregg Ahlers was called to his job as a sheriff's deputy. He was sent to Fair Acres with a reserve deputy to check on a house that had collapsed on a family.

"We never made it there," he said.

At the Burlington Railroad underpass, their vehicle was lifted off the ground four times.

"As the car was skipping along, I thought we were driving into the tornado," he said. "I thought that one time we're not going to come back down. Once the car came to a stop, we turned around and came back into town."

Where everything had once been untouched, now there was damage.

There weren't many passable roads, so Ahlers went to the Kmart parking lot on South Locust, where a command center had been set up. He was sent on the first coroner's call -- a man had been found dead in a home at the end of South Locust.

In the days following the tornadoes, the dive team, of which Ahlers was a member, searched area sandpits for debris and possible additional victims. As he swam through the murky water, he came across a hand sticking out of the mud, something that made his heart beat a bit faster until he realized it was only a glove.

Bill Lawrey

As the clouds darkened and the weather turned ominous over Grand Island, now-retired sheriff's Sgt. Bill Lawrey was the sole man on duty. He called the sheriff to report that more deputies would probably be needed. He realized how bad things were getting as he drove east on Capital Avenue and saw sparks flying from wires being twisted in the wind near the veterans home. He turned toward Capital Heights to get away from the wires and was in that area as the storm passed through.

While surveying the damage, Lawrey found a young woman on North Highway 2 who had been killed by the storm.

He knew her family, and he worried about his own.

His home was a block behind the former Village Inn. His wife, Sandy, and three children sought cover in the basement as a massive tornado took their home.

"Sandy said it sounded like a chair scrapping across the floor, and that was the house," he said.

The same twister took the 40-by-80-foot roof off their Harley-Davidson store just blocks away from their home. More than 40 motorcycles were damaged when the walls fell in and debris filled the building.

Another deputy pulled Lawrey's family from the basement and took them to his own home. The Lawreys rebuilt both their home and the business, which is now in its 51st year of business and in a new location. The business also survived the flood of 1967.

Lawrey was released from duty about 2 a.m. and spent the next few weeks getting his personal life back in order. He had nothing to wear but his uniform and a pair of coveralls he had carried in his patrol car. The Red Cross and Salvation Army came to the rescue with food, drinks and clothing.

He learned to appreciate electricity in the days after the storm. Without the street lights, the city was terribly dark. The lack of air conditioners offered no break from the heat and humidity. The rain that followed the tornadoes made everything moldy, and that began to smell. And the storm killed the birds, so there was no chirping to make things seem normal.

"The routine was gone," he said. "It was endless work to recover. I didn't realize how much of Grand Island it encompassed. I was planning on one (tornado), not seven. They really pounded us bad."

Curt Rohling

North of Grand Island, the lightning was so bad on Highway 281 that firefighter Curt Rohling and a co-worker had to pull over. They had been in Dannebrog taking an EMT test when the power went out.

"(Stopping) was good because the tornado was probably hitting northwest Grand Island and Capital Avenue at that time," he said.

The duo made their way back to Station 1 and went into the basement with residents from the area. In a duplex on Brahma, Rohling's pregnant wife sought safety in a cushion-lined bathtub as a board passed through the wall over her head. Months later, the couple found insulation that had been driven into the tight spaces between several books and their protective sleeves.

After Meves Bowl was hit, Rohling and another firefighter headed to the site, where they found hundreds of pairs of shoes. The other man feared the worst, until Rohling reminded him there had been a shoe store next to the bowling alley.

Firefighters walked through town all night turning off gas and checking on people. In the morning, they were greeted with a clear view of the devastation.

"It looked like the surface of the moon," he said. "There were no landmarks."