PILGER — The randomness of a tornado’s wrath was apparent to residents here as they assessed damage Tuesday morning.
In one area of this Stanton County community, all the houses were destroyed — but one. Large items in houses — like appliances and beds — were missing. Small items, like a Bible, were found.
“It was like God dragged two fingernails across the land." That's how Gregg Moeller of Wisner described the devastation after two tornadoes in one storm touched down in Northeast Nebraska and caused extensive damage in Pilger.
"Oh my God, the damage is unbelievable," said Moeller, who teaches in the Wisner-Pilger school system.
Weighing heavily on everyone’s minds — much more than the extensive property damage — was the 5-year-old child who died in Pilger as a result of injuries suffered in the Monday afternoon storm, as well as a man who died in a Cuming County traffic accident that was attributed to the weather.
Calista Dixon, 5, died after suffering injuries inside a mobile home on Main Street in Pilger, according to Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger. Her mother, 42-year-old Kandi Murphree, remained at Creighton University Medical Center in critical condition in a medically-incuded coma.
Cody Murphree, who is employed at Heritage Homes in Wayne said his 4-year-old sister survived the tornado with just scratches.
Murphree told a KTIC of Wayne that he called his mother when he heard about the tornado warning and told them to get out of their mobile home and find shelter. But the mobile home on Main Street was destroyed while they were inside.
Cuming County officials said 74-year-old David Herout of Clarkson died when his vehicle left the roadway about 4:50 p.m. about 2.5 miles east of Pilger. Herout was ejected from the vehicle, Unger said.
"It's 10 times worse than Wayne," Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger told personnel from more than a dozen emergency agencies. "Those of you who remember that (the devastating tornado that struck nearby Wayne in October 2013),” he said. “It's 10 times worse.
Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt described the post-tornado town of Pilger as “like a war zone.”
“Houses are plumb gone,” he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Weatherholt, 75, said it appeared the tornado went through the middle of town, “completely obliterating” Main Street. He estimated about three-quarters of the homes were damaged.
“The co-op is all gone,” he said. “The office buildings, the convenience store, all the bins. It’s all gone. It’s just all gone. The big Lutheran church on the east side of town is all gone. It’s terrible. It’s really terrible.”
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger concurred, estimating that 50 to 75 percent of Pilger was heavily damaged or destroyed. The school is likely beyond repair, he said.
“It’s total devastation,” Unger said.
St. John’s Lutheran Church was one of the casualties of the storm, with only the church’s bell tower remaining as of Tuesday morning.
The Rev. Terry Makelin, pastor of the church, was on a youth trip to Missouri when the storm hit, while his wife was away from home, too.
Larry Nelson was one of the many in Pilger whose house was destroyed.
Nelson went to a neighbor’s house, Marilyn Andersen, before the tornado hit. Her house was the only one in the neighborhood that still stood on Tuesday morning — virtually untouched.
Nelson said a big cloud came up Monday afternoon that “looked like it was going to be trouble.” His neighbor let him come over — like usual — when bad weather is looming.
This time, the cloud continued to build up for over an hour, he said.
The neighbor, Marilyn Andersen, said she and Nelson ate popcorn and planned to wait the storm out. They also heard on the radio that the tornado was supposed to hit Pilger at 4:05 p.m.
“It arrived exactly at that time,” Andersen said.
The sirens went off in Pilger. Nelson and Andersen went into her basement. They could hear the wind. It was all over in seconds.
“We came out and looked at the devastation and it broke my heart,” she said.
Andersen said she couldn’t believe it. Her house, however, was almost untouched.
“I never experienced anything like this and I hope I never do again,” she said.
Nelson, who lives by himself, had his house destroyed. Still, he tried to remain positive.
“I was just happy that I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “Everything can be replaced.”
Nelson said he saw both a big and little tornado outside of Pilger in the distance before they went to the basement.
With the large amount of destruction in Pilger, Unger said, “there definitely should have been multiple fatalities.’’ Fortunately, the town had a 10-15 minute warning before twister struck.
“We’re small-town America,’’ Unger said. “Our motto is we’re a town too tough to die.’’
After earlier touching down closer to Stanton, the storm made its way to Pilger. The National Weather Service alerted residents as early as 3:41 p.m. that a tornado was headed toward them and would arrive at 4:10 p.m. At 4:12 p.m., the weather service said it would arrive 4:15 p.m. The storm hit about 4:18 p.m.
It continued on through the northwest corner of Cuming County, the southeast corner of Wayne County, western Thurston County and into Dakota County. Meteorologists believe it stopped producing tornadoes just short of Sioux City.
Among the Pilger houses destroyed was the one owned by Jim Duncan, who serves as Pilger’s mayor.
“We just wanted to make sure everyone was safe,” Andersen said. “I was praying every minute and prayer goes a long way.”
Duncan said his sister and nephew were in the house with him when the tornado hit. They all hid in the basement.
His nephew got a cut in the head and his sister had a cracked shoulder blade. Jim had a bump in the head and felt something hit him in the back.
All were transported to Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk and later released.
“You come out of that and you’re lucky — like there’s someone above watching out for you,” Duncan said.
Already as of Tuesday morning, a lot of support has been expressed and offered for the community, he said.
“There’s no better time for me to say thank you to everyone,” Duncan said. “I can’t send thank yous to everyone.”
Another of the families whose houses were destroyed were the Mattson family.
Nancy Mattson and one of the sons, Bryce, were in Norfolk with Nancy’s parents when the tornado struck. But Mike, her husband, and son Brody were at the house in Pilger and experienced the tornado.
Brody said they could see the storm off in the distance and figured it would just blow over. Then they saw the cloud touch down.
They headed for the basement. Then they could hear it blowing against the house and lots of creaking noises, like nails squeaking, Brody said. “When we came up a minute later, everything was gone — the house, the cars,” Brody said.
The Mattsons saved their two dogs. And, remarkably, the first thing they found when they went through belongings was a family Bible.
“Mom said it was a Bible she got from her mom in 1927,” Brody said.
Mark Aken, 58, just moved to Pilger three weeks ago. He lived in a rental
house near the flattened St. John's Lutheran Church.
“I ain't even had the chance to unpack yet," he said Tuesday morning. "I don't know what's left. I guess I'll find out."
Aken is staying with family in the area for now.
The Village Cafe here proved to be a safe place Monday afternoon when the tornadoes struck this Northeast Nebraska community.
Cheryl Husmann said her husband, Lyle, was in Pilger when the tornado struck, but he found refuge in the Village Cafe, along with others.
"They're OK, but there's a lots and lots of damage" to the town, she said.
Even brick buildings had suffered damage, with bricks tumbled to the ground in piles, and some were leveled. Cars were flipped over, trees were stripped of leaves.
Gov. Dave Heineman was in Pilger on Tuesday morning to assess damage for himself and share information about what emergency assistance would be available from the state. Already on Monday night, he had declared a state of emergency in the area. The Nebraska National Guard would be available to assist local emergency responders and help with the cleanup.
The shock of the tornado’s devastation was felt by many and in different ways. On Tuesday morning, neighbors talked about damage and speculated about who was injured. Others stayed in their cars, some occasionally wiping away tears as they prepared to see the damage.
Brian Reeg of Winside stood where St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pilger had been. He had come to town to see if he could help. All he could do was stare into the field that was littered with pieces of his church.
"This is where I was baptized," he said. "Where I was married and gone to church my whole life.”