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Twenty Years
Officers, firefighters describe tornado rescue efforts

By Carol Bryant
The Independent

Grand Island residents in the South Loust area sort through piles of wreckage on June 4, 1980. Starr Elementary can be seen in the background. A few apartments (far right) survived the storm. Although many Grand Island residents retreated to their basements the night of June 3, 1980, firefighters, police and Hall County sheriff's deputies didn't.

Some patrolled Grand Island as the tornadoes struck, and others were soon called to work. In the aftermath, National Guard units were dispatched from other parts of the state because Grand Island's unit was training in Colorado.

All have stories to tell.

Hall County Sheriff's Department

Lt. Rodger Williams recalled that deputy Kelly Buck spotted the first tornado west of Capital Heights. Williams drove through Capital Heights with his sirens going and warned people on his loudspeaker.

Between 9:15 and 11 p.m., Williams was "as frightened as I ever want to be. Two times that night, I could have died."

His first brush with death occurred in Capital Heights. Had he turned right at one intersection, he would have encountered a tornado. From Capital Heights, Williams continued south on Highway 281. Another deputy asked him to check his home south of Meves Bowl. As Williams drove through Fonner Park, he could see the tornado that hit Meves Bowl.

"The wind started sliding me around," Williams said.

He drove west toward South Locust Street.

"I missed Locust. I went two blocks to the west. The tornado came down South Locust," Williams said. That was the second time he could have been killed.

He saw a street filled with walls and other house debris west of South Locust. After his car started to lift off the ground, he put it in park and spread out on the seat. He returned to the area near Starr Elementary School.

"All you could see were the main floors of homes," Williams said. "All of this was in a driving rain."

During the night, Williams periodically returned to a gas station to fill up his tires. Officers in the Sheriff's Department worked 12-hour shifts for the next week.

"It was enlightening, because people were together," Williams said. "No matter what people had, they shared it with other people."

Emmett Arnett was the chief deputy on June 3, 1980. He worked during the day, then returned at night to the 911 center in the basement of City Hall, then at First and Pine streets. His daughter, Carrie, was working as a 911 dispatcher.

"We lost our power at City Hall. The generator wasn't working right," Arnett said. He ran to his car to dispatch officers.

Arnett lived on Grand Island Avenue. He had no way to contact his family and had $33,000 in damage to his house.

"It blew all the windows out. The neighbor's gutter blew through our front window," Arnett said.

Grand Island REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communications Team) had a bus that was used as a communications center following the tornadoes. Communication among agencies was more difficult then, because they used different frequencies.

Grand Island Police Department

Howard Bacon was police chief on June 3, 1980. After the storm hit, Bacon went to the 911 center in the basement of City Hall. He traveled to the area near the Nebraska Veterans Home after a tornado struck and worked with sheriff's deputy Gary Morgan and three firefighters checking houses.

Deputy Chief Gary Piel said they needed to meet because "South Locust was devastated."

"He briefed me about the devastation on South Locust and southeast Grand Island. We went there and decided we better contact all members of the Grand Island Police Department and get them on duty," Bacon said. "We discussed the situation with Mayor (Bob) Kriz, supported contacting the governor and wanted to get help from the National Guard. We can just be thankful that Bob Kriz was mayor and took charge. He was a blessing for the city.

"Other communities sent officers to Grand Island to assist us. Lincoln police sent 10 vehicles and two men in each vehicle," Bacon said. The basic training class at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island also helped.

Gene Watson of Grand Island, who would later serve as police chief, was a police captain on June 3, 1980. Watson reported to work after the sirens went off.

"Howard Bacon assigned me to set up a command post at Kmart," Watson said. "The purpose of the command post was to coordinate the massive amount of help that was pouring into the city." Kmart then was on South Locust, where Skagway South is now located.

After a house was searched, a red X was painted on it.

"It was difficult to give directions, because all of the landmarks were gone," Watson said. "I think I went home about 36 hours later. We were very, very lucky."

Police Capt. Bill Holloway was a sergeant on the 3-to-11 p.m. shift on June 3, 1980.

"When the sirens sounded, we knew the weather was getting bad," Holloway said. He drove to Ashley Park and told people to clear out.

On Broadwell Avenue, "garbage cans were blowing and hitting the sides of the cruiser. By then, we were starting to get calls about people trapped in their basements near Senior High."

"It was raining so hard, you couldn't wear your glasses. I remember pulling people out of a basement north and west of Senior High. A lot of streets were blocked by downed trees. I think we worked until noon the next day before we got off work."

Don Poole of Grand Island was a police captain on the 3-to-11 p.m. shift on June 3, 1980, and was a spotter near Northwest High School.

"This was the first time I'd ever seen Grand Island black. It was spooky," Poole said. "We had six flat tires (on police cars) through that whole night. It was a night of horror. We had hundreds of reports of people trapped. We checked every tip with a lot of volunteer help. There was so much adrenaline running in our veins. We made a lot of runs to the hospital."

Bernie Shum of Grand Island was a police lieutenant on June 3, 1980, in charge of police communications and had been supervising dispatchers. Howard Maxon, now city/county emergency management director, had recently started as the city's emergency communications center director.

After Shum got home from work, his pager went off.

"They were short one person at the 911 center," Shum said. "I got down there at 6:30 p.m. Thirty-six hours later, I got home."

Three dispatchers were working.

"You didn't have time to think what you were doing. You just did it," Shum said. "It was really a mess until 9 a.m. the next morning. The volume of calls we received kept the switchboard lit all the time. It reminded me of the destruction I saw in World War II. We were fortunate we didn't lose more people than we did."

Shum was told his house at 1108 S. Greenwich was gone. That didn't occur, but a branch broke through the roof and ended up within inches of the pillow on his bed.

Grand Island Fire Department

Dutch Schwieger was deputy fire chief on June 3, 1980.

"It was my mother's birthday. She lived at Golden Towers," Schwieger said. "My wife and I and kids were over there for the birthday party."

After the sirens sounded, Schwieger reported to Fire Station 1 on Pine Street and stayed until about 9 p.m., when a tornado hit in northwest Grand Island.

"They sent fire trucks to a reported fire at Skate Island," Schwieger said.

No fire had occurred. As reports were made, "there were numerous rescues going on all over town."

Mark Luebke, now a Fire Department captain, was among firefighters who were recalled to work on June 3, 1980. His engine company was detailed to a fire in northeast Grand Island. Near Sixth and Sycamore streets, the wind blew harder. A 60-foot-tall tree fell over, hit the truck and crushed one firefighter's hand after the fire truck turned west on Sixth Street.

"We rescued a woman and her baby who were in a car next to our fire truck. We took refuge in the basement of a house."

Firefighters removed tree limbs from the truck and returned to Station 1. They did searches all over Grand Island.

Luebke checked on his house on Meves Street, five blocks west of Meves Bowl, three or four hours after the storm was over.

"My house didn't sustain any damage. My garage was completely gone," Luebke said.

Capt. Ron Kucera reported to duty after the first tornadoes hit on June 3, 1980.

"We heard a report of tornadoes on South Locust. We went to South Locust near Long John Silver's," Kucera said.

He helped remove people from the Pagoda Lounge in south Grand Island, where a death occurred.

"We went on search and rescue in the area by Meves Bowl and Oklahoma Street. We could see Meves Bowl with the lightning. We went over there and started searching, but everyone was out. There were cars stacked up on top of cars."

Bill Bamesberger was a Fire Department captain at Station 1 on June 3, 1980.

"The wind was blowing so hard, it was raining and it was like a hurricane," Bamesberger said.

He remembered shutting off gas lines in northwest Grand Island and seeing a truck upside down near Dreisbach's.

"The rest of the night, we searched for people," Bamesberger said. "It's the darkest I've ever seen this town."

National Guard

National Guard Sgt. Ted Guenther of Beatrice arrived in Grand Island on June 4, 1980.

"The Grand Island (National Guard) unit, as I recall, was at annual training at Fort Carson, Colo.," Guenther said.

Other National Guard units were called to Grand Island.

"We went to the armory, where we stayed the next four or five nights. They placed us at several guard posts. The first night, I was near the veterans home," Guenther said.

Guenther remembers most how much people helped others.

"The Red Cross and Salvation Army were there with almost anything you needed. They would come around constantly. They were lifesavers, literally. People didn't have food or water."