By Don Haddix
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Don Haddix, a former reporter for KHAS-TV in Hastings, was in Grand Island the evening of June 3, 1980. Following are his recollections 20 years later.
As dawn broke, there was nothing ominous about June 3, 1980. No earthly sign that something dark, sinister and furious was about to be unleashed on the Third City that day. I was a Grand Island-based reporter for KHAS-TV in Hastings and still getting my feet wet as a broadcast journalist. I lived in a rented apartment on the 11th floor of the tallest building in town -- the Yancey Hotel. When I arrived home that evening, all that was on my agenda was couple of days of R&R. However, as it turned out, my time off was short-lived.
I filed a report for the Associated Press on my experience of viewing the initial appearance of the tornadoes as they first touched down and then seeking safety in the basement of the Yancey. At KHAS-TV, I anchored the weather on weekends so I had accumulated some knowledge about storm systems. This system that spawned several twisters and raked G.I. like a giant bear claw materialized virtually out of thin air. I clearly recall the National Weather Service only listing the chance of precipitation at about 20 percent.
Everything about that day was serene and calm up until about 8 p.m. I remember seeing the lights of ball fields where diamonds were peppered with unsuspecting ballplayers.
The 11th floor of the Yancey gave me an unencumbered view of the entire region. I enjoyed the sunsets that painted the prairie sky westward to my native Panhandle home. In Oshkosh as a youth I was chased many times to the fruit cellar along with my family by the dark clouds, which poured out twisters from time to time.
Now those same magnificent and billowing thunderheads were on the doorstep of Grand Island at sundown on June 3. The dark thunder roll preceding the storm was enveloping the city like a plague. It didn't take a meteorologist's radar to know that hell's fury was about to be unleashed on 30,000 souls. All the ingredients were in the mixing bowl and the oven was on full blast.
As the storm's edge reached the northern part of the city, several funnel clouds started dropping down like yo-yos on a string. Soon a twister was on the ground north of Capital Heights and the evil dance had started. The black devil was picking up debris in some open fields and moving forward slowly.
I considered the danger but ignored it for a better view. Where? On the rooftop where if felt like you could almost touch the sky. I grabbed my camera and ran to the exit where a few more flights of stairs awaited to reach the rooftop door. What if it was closed? It wasn't, and I popped it open and walked out into a roar of howling wind and claps of distant thunder.
To the north near Capital Road was the large tornado. About a half-mile away, to the northeast, was a smaller funnel that appeared to be on the ground but seemed to dance up and down more. Film was not in the camera so I had move quickly to load it and begin clicking the shutter. Even 400 ASA film would have a hard time exposing something dark from that distance away.
I know I was shaking from fright thinking that twisters could move at incredible bursts of speed and I guessed the distance was about 3 to 4 miles and closing fast. What if it moved straight to the south and landed on the building like a hop-skip and a jump? Besides that, the associated gusts of wind could just pick me up and toss me off the top of the building like a roof shingle.
I pointed my lens toward the area where I last saw the dark menacing thing and waited for something to illuminate the background. When a burst of light went off, either from a transformer exploding or a lightning flash, I would take a snapshot and then wait again.
After I finished taking a few pictures, I decided it was time to head for safety. I reached the elevator on the 11th floor to find out it was non-operational because the power was out in the building. I could either stay or flee. I chose the latter, considering the force of a tornado possibly hitting the building head on. There would be too much flying glass and debris to contend with. I liked my chances better in the basement.
The emergency stairs were noisy, dark and treacherous, and I bumped into other tenants and guests who reached the same conclusion I had. Below was a better place to be. We were like the blind leading the blind but we moved as quickly as possible. Mother nature was knocking on the door outside.
Later that evening, from the basement of City Hall, I phoned in an eyewitness account to my TV station. An AP correspondent overheard the conversation. She was anxious to file my report for her wire service. "The Scariest Thing I've Ever Seen" was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country the next day.
In retrospect, it was a simplistic condensed version of my experience. Sometimes more is less. Afterward, I received phone calls from dozens of radio and television stations looking for sound bites to add on-air to the wire story.
Grand Island was unfortunately famous in almost every corner of the nation and some parts of globe the next day, and the media wanted a personalized slice of the human drama. That's the news business for you.
After, the last twister danced out of town, we brought up a news crew to film the damage. In pitch black darkness, as we traveled South Locust towards Fonner Park -- trees, telephone poles, cables and high-voltage wires laid strewn as far as the headlights could shine. Cautiously, I drove a Jeep Eagle over the debris as the photographer shot video through a rolled down passenger window. His halogen light illuminated the destruction. Buildings left untouched. Dreisbach's in ruins. Another large building nearby destroyed.
An escaped horse from one of the nearby stables blocked our path and we drove around it. It was definitely dazed and bewildered. When I looked at the shell-shocked animal I thought of survivors under piles of rubble. Just hanging on until someone could show up and rescue them.
The morning after -- just before dawn -- as I walked toward The Independent with film in hand, a surrealistic calm had settled over the city. It was strange to hear birds chipping after the raging beast roared through the night. I handed the film over to a reporter I knew from the newspaper and we headed for the darkroom to expose the film. He and I hoped for something. So far no photos were available of the first twister. Later we heard six had touched down in Grand Island.
And no pictures would be had at that moment either. The film could not reproduce an image. One frame had some light in the corner but nothing to expose on Kodak paper. I hung my head in disappointment about the opportunity. Gone with the wind. I headed for the Yancey to change clothes and drive the '76 Nova toward Hastings and KHAS-TV.
The morning's light was now gliding down on the city and wrath of nature's fury was clear for everyone to see. No sleep last night or today. Forget about a couple of days off.
A reporter's lifetime opportunity was clearly at hand. It was time get to work.