Dixon family

21-year-old Cody Murphree stands behind his mom Kandi Lynn Murphree. Kandi Lynn's two daughters Cali (left) and Robin (right) stand in front. Cali was killed in the Pilger, Neb. tornado on Monday, June 16, 2014.

PILGER — Five-year-old Calista Dixon and her 4-year-old sister, Robin, frequently visited their family friend Scott Koehler.

On a particular recent visit, they snuck their backpacks in with them and — once Koehler was in the other room —  the coloring began.

Green. Blue. Black.

Not on paper, mind you, but on the family room walls.

Koehler had noticed the girls were very quiet. So he wandered back into the family room and was surprised — even a bit frustrated — to see the their pictures covering the white paint of the walls.

"I asked, 'Who smuggled that stuff in here?' " Koehler said. "I got some stuff that took it off. I was mad . . . but they're some pretty cute kids."

Koehler, who is a friend of the girls’ mother, Kandi Lynn Murphree, said the two girls played off each other. "When the bigger one did something, the little one would follow," he said.

The incident with the crayons now seems like nothing more than a distant memory. Monday’s two tornadoes, sirens and a text message changed all of that.

Calista died Monday evening from injuries suffered when the tornadoes hit here. Murphree remains hospitalized in Omaha in a medically-induced coma. Robin didn’t suffer any major injuries.

On Monday, just past 4 p.m., Koehler was sitting in his house outside of town when he heard about the tornado that had hit Stanton and knew it was headed toward Pilger.

With just one glance outside his front window, Koehler saw two funnels touch the ground. His first thought before running to his cellar was to warn Murphree and her two little girls. They lived in a trailer on Main Street, and the tornadoes appeared to be were headed straight for town.

"I texted her," Koehler said. "She never uses (her phone). So I had to text her."

Koehler said the first thing he thought of was for them to get to safety across the street at Pilger’s convenience store.

"Run store" was what his message said.

But the warning didn't save them.

Once the tornadoes passed, Koehler went into town and headed straight for Main Street where 5-year-old Calista lay unconscious.

"She was alive. She had a pulse," he said. "She was covered in corn dust. It was so sad."

As more help arrived, Calista died at the scene.

Her mother lay near her — unconscious but alive. Robin remained unharmed. For now, Robin is staying in Norfolk with her 21-year-old brother, Cody. The children’s elderly grandparents are Les and Kay Labenz, who also live in Pilger.

It’s Robin’s first time without her big sister — the one she played with and adored.

"It's woulda, coulda, shoulda," Koehler said. "Why didn't I tell them to go to the bank? It was closer. Half the distance. But I don't even know if they made it out the door."

* * *

The Murphree family was relatively new to Pilger. Kandi, who was raised in Kansas, had spent much of her adult life in Alabama.

In February, Murphree and the girls moved from Alabama to Pilger, and into the Labenz home at 200 S. Main St., to help out. A couple of months later, the family got her own place,  a three-bedroom trailer about a block away from the Labenz home.

On Monday, she finished her shift at Prime Stop in Wayne and drove home to Pilger. Around 3 p.m., she picked up her girls from her mother’s home and took them to their place down the street.

The tornado struck the Labenz home and temporarily trapped the elderly couple in its basement. The first thing Mrs. Labenz did after help arrived to rescue them was to look for her daughter’s trail house. It was gone.

Her daughter and granddaughters had been found on Main Street. Kandi was found lying there. Cali was found lying there. Robin was found running, running for help — for her big sister and her mother.

The girls’ father, Elijah Dixon of Alabama, is joining the family in Nebraska. When he gets here, they will begin planning a funeral.

But Mrs. Labenz can’t begin to make sense of any of this. “We are at our wits’ end,” she said.

* * *

Editor’s note: The World-Herald News Service contributed to this article.

In other news

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced Northeast Community College to hold its 2020 graduation ceremony online, administrators have decided to hold this year’s commencement in person with six events over a two-day period.