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25 Years Later
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Twenty Years
Independent still went to press

By Bill Brennan
Independent Executive Editor

A few Grand Island Independent reporters had a reason to watch the clouds build in the northern sky on the night of June 3, 1980. Their softball team had a game that night, and each wondered if the game would become a rain-out.

No severe weather was in the forecast, but the clouds built higher, and the sky turned darker. The drop in temperature became noticeable.

By the time the sirens sounded, not many Grand Island residents were surprised. A super cell had formed above the city. Yet nobody realized just how bad events would become.

In 1980, The Independent was an evening newspaper, and most editors and reporters were at their homes.

The first tornado warnings in the area came at 8:15 p.m., but sirens inside Grand Island sounded at 9 p.m. A super cell had formed to a height of 70,000 feet above Grand Island. During the course of two hours and 45 minutes, it spawned seven tornadoes that attacked the northwestern and southeastern parts of the city.

Almost everyone who had a view to the northwest saw the first tornado. But with storm clouds blocking the sun, most of the tornadoes attacked the city in darkness.

That night, nobody in Grand Island had a clear understanding of just how many tornadoes had hit the community. We simply tracked the damage.

The storm knocked out all the power and many of the phone lines in Grand Island.

I was city editor back then, and though my home was without power, the phone worked, so we used flashlights and candles to set up a news headquarters at my house. Even as the storm continued, reporters drove to various parts of the community and then came back to my house to provide updates as we tried to piece the story together.

The phones jammed, and it became impossible for people to call into Grand Island. Yet I could call out, and throughout the night, I relayed periodic reports to the Associated Press.

The real challenge for our newspaper came the next morning. As dawn broke, people came to realize the massive extent of damage in Grand Island. I left for work very early that day, and I remember driving through a slalom course of fallen trees, an eerie sight on the way to work.

Across Grand Island, the destructive force of the storm had left residents numb. Many spent the morning collecting their thoughts as well as their belongings.

As editors and reporters walked into the newspaper, the same question was written on each of their faces. Without power and water, how was The Independent going to publish a newspaper?

We wrote our news stories on mainframe word processors in 1980, but we still had five manual typewriters in the building. A couple of reporters helped me roll them across the floor and closer to windows where beams of sunlight covered a portion of the room. We also had one telephone in the building with a direct line that didn't go through the switchboard (which needed electricity). It was our only contact with the outside world.

Several newspapers offered to help us, but we decided to publish at York, a member of the same company as The Independent. Dave Beliles, our publisher, decided it was impossible to print a newspaper with advertising, sports, markets and other normal features. Instead, he decided on an eight-page newspaper with nothing but news and photos of the tornadoes.

After selecting the York team, I immediately dispatched most of our reporters and photographers to different parts of the community to gather information. Al Schmahl, our managing editor, drove to the airport to learn more about the astounding weather system that brought so much destruction to Grand Island. I remained in the office to coordinate the news reporting.

One of our top reporters became a rewrite man, almost a lost art in the newspaper business. Each reporter provided him with two or three paragraphs of information from their own reporting, and it became the main story in the newspaper. The National Guard provided our photographers with rides in helicopters, and the main half-page photo on the front page of the June 4 newspaper was an aerial view of the worst destruction.

There were planning meetings to be held and damage lists and maps to be discussed. These were the days before anyone had ever heard of Macintoshes and Photoshop software. In 1980, even color reproduction wasn't automatic at our newspaper, and it had to be planned carefully.

By midmorning, representatives of media from all over the country had descended on Grand Island. Most were polite and professional, but many sought working space at The Independent. There was little room available. Others sought information. Too little of it also was available.

We did have power in the newspaper by late in the morning, and water became available in the afternoon. However, the Grand Island downtown area was one of the few areas to have utilities available. Many had to wait for the better part of the week.

Common sights that week included long lines of people in front of ice trucks, meat stored in coolers, nightly barbecues and people shaving with garden hoses.

One of the most interesting moments of the tornado involved a decision by the Associated Press to go with a report that 30 people had been killed in the basement of the Pagoda Lounge, a local bar. If the rumor were true, the Grand Island death toll would have been 35 people, a dramatic number.

The AP has a policy that it must have confirmations from two official sources before it would go with the number of deaths. AP reporters in Grand Island were able to find official sources, but these individuals were only repeating the rumor; they had no inside knowledge of the death count.

The Associated Press decided to use the number. Our newspaper had the luxury of checking out the information.

One of our reporters quickly learned that the Pagoda Lounge, destroyed in the tornado, had no basement. The official death toll was five.

The AP quickly amended its count, but early reports were out. Several Eastern newspapers erroneously reported 35 people had been killed, and television networks committed vast amounts of resources to the story, which received maximum coverage.

As a result, Grand Island benefited from swift government assistance, and President Jimmy Carter actually came to tour the damage.

But the episode was just one of many that took place on this surrealistic day after the tornadoes struck. We had to keep our focus on the job at hand.

Editors and photographers drove from Grand Island to York, where stories and film were processed. More than 25,000 papers went to press early in the afternoon. That evening, carriers delivered newspapers around town, some making the rounds just before darkness fell. Some carriers threw newspapers on porches where houses no longer stood.

These momentous events brought out the best in our reporters some two decades ago. Many reporters worked all night. Then they worked all day. Then they worked well into the night.

People became exhausted as the week wore on. Many kept going out of a sense of duty. I finally sent one reporter home when he developed a nosebleed.

Nobody wanted the tornadoes to happen, but this certainly was The Independent's finest hour. The newspaper had managed to publish on the day following the worst natural disaster ever to strike the community. A small staff banded together to handle an overwhelming news story. Reliable information in the newspaper helped residents cope with the storm.

On June 5, Schmahl wrote a front-page editorial on the storm, titled "Bloodied but unbowed." He noted that Grand Island was devastated, and few really could imagine the destruction. "Yet Grand Island is not a city in shock," he wrote. "Wounded, yes. Saddened, yes. But more evident has been the orderly and well-organized assistance and cleanup, the jutted jaws of grim determination of the victims, the helping hands of unaffected Islanders and neighbors from all over Central Nebraska. And even an occasional smile and many, many sighs of relief Š"

The terrible night of June 3, 1980, brought damage and scars to Grand Island. But it also brought a bond among the people who live here.

Some 20 years later, the sights of rubble and the sounds of hovering helicopters are just memories to those who lived here. The very young children who played tornado games that summer have grown into young adults and are scattered across the nation. Many people have moved into Grand Island since then.

Yet June 3, 1980, always will be the most infamous date in Grand Island history. Ivy Ruckman has written a book for fourth-graders, "Night of the Twisters." It is the way many young children grow up knowing about Grand Island.

Those of us who lived through the event also will never forget. These were the worst moments for Grand Island. These also were the finest.