Cleanup Begins In Pilger

By: Katie Stukey Email
By: Katie Stukey Email
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Crews shuttled volunteers and residents of Pilger, Nebraska back into town Wednesday morning to start clean up efforts, two days after tornadoes killed two people and destroyed up to 50 homes.

Volunteers met at Wisner-Pilger High School for work that will last until 7 p.m. Volunteers are being bused in and out as only law enforcement and emergency vehicles are being allowed in Pilger, a town of about 350 people located about 100 miles northwest of Omaha.

"I just came back through town and my estimate is 75-80 percent total destruction of this village," said Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger.

Calista Dixon

A 5-year-old girl and a 74-year-old man were the first two tornado deaths in Nebraska in a decade. Calista Dixon died at Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk. Her uncle told WOWT 6 News that Calista and her mom, Kandi Murphree, were in a mobile home on Main Street that took a direct hit from the twister. Kandi was transferred to an Omaha hospital and was in a coma Tuesday.

The girl’s brother, Cody Murphree, said, “Her name was Calista. She was a beautiful 5-year-old girl who only wanted to be a doctor." The pain was just setting in for Cody on Tuesday. The first word he heard about the casualties came in a phone call. “I got a call from my grandmother saying my mother and two sisters were being transported to a hospital." Then came word his baby sister didn’t survive. “She was always full of energy. Sweet little girl. She loved everybody.”

With his mother still in a coma, he said his next step is “doing what I need to get my family back together.” Cody said the family moved to the community just four months ago.

Charlene Clemens looked back on the two violent tornadoes touching the ground and spinning toward Pilger. “I was driving back from Pender. My husband called and said get into town." Charlene and Regan Jensen both took shelter in a gas station. “The sirens went off. We got into the cooler, then it came." The store took a direct hit from the first tornado. After it passed, they looked out and saw the second one off in the distance. “All of a sudden he started yelling get down, it's coming back, it's coming back."

Charlene and Regan say what happened next changed their lives forever. They stepped outside and someone ran up and handed them a 4-year-old girl. They took turns holding her. That girl, Robin's family, took a direct hit in the storm. Her sister Calista was killed, her mother remains in a coma.

Kay Labenz, Kandi Murphree’s mother, issued the following statement on Tuesday:
Kandi is still in intensive care with head trauma and a broken leg. She's in critical condition.

Four-year-old Robin is being taken care of by family. It breaks our hearts that our 5-year-old angel Cali has left us. Cali's dream was to be a doctor and help people when she grew up. Maybe God has a job for her now.

We thank everyone for their concern and prayers. Please keep them coming. Kandi has a good fight ahead of her.

The Labenz Family

Calista and her mother were among 17 patients seen by the medical staff at Faith Regional after the storm. Two remain hospitalized in fair condition. Pender Community Hospital treated three people from rural areas west of Pender for minor injuries. Providence Medical Center in Wayne treated three patients.

Stanton County officials identified the second person killed in the storm as 74-year-old David Herout of Clarkson, Nebraska. He died after his vehicle left the road. Officials say Herout was ejected from the vehicle around 4:50 p.m. on a county road approximately 2.5 miles east of Pilger.

Herout’s son is an Omaha police officer. Doug Herout was providing security for the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park when he was notified of his father’s death. There was a moment of silence at Tuesday’s opening game for all victims of the storm.


The National Weather Service has released its preliminary report on tornado-ravaged Stanton County. Investigators found evidence of four tornado tracks of EF-4 strength between 3:35 p.m. and 5:05 p.m. The twister that destroyed much of Pilger traveled a distance of nearly 20 miles. Two tornadoes touched down about a mile part. In addition to the tornadoes, hail up to two inches in diameter pounded the landscape.

Gov. Dave Heineman and NEMA representatives toured the damage Tuesday. A state of emergency has been declared.

Once the massive storm smashed through Pilger, there was more destruction ahead. “About the time we walked outside we seen it coming across the county line," said Michael Henrich, who works and lives on a feedlot north of Wisner. They spent the morning trying to round up the cattle. “They got to get loaded onto trucks." Many were injured and he estimates that half of the 3,200 on the property didn't make it.

Home Destroyed

Michael rode it out with a co-worker in the storm cellar. “It came right over the top of us. It sucked the cellar door right up and we were hanging on to some steel pipes so we wouldn't get pulled out. There was so much dust we could hardly breathe. Thank God nothing came down in there. We got up against the wall as close as we could so that if debris came down we didn't get impaled or something.”

A half-mile from the feedlot, we noticed a marker at the end of a lane noting a home that, until Monday, had been in the family since the 1870s. It’s gone. Corn fields have been stripped. Debris is spread for miles.

The feedlot owners plan to rebuild. As for Henrich, he says it's hard to get the image he saw from the storm cellar out of his head. “We leaned forward and you could look straight up and see right in the middle of the tornado, the debris flying right over us."

Storm survivors are still taking stock of what just happened and it happened quickly. "Just a matter of a few minutes is all," said Marilyn Andersen. "We stood in front of this window and watched and we could see it coming."

Damaged Home

Marilyn huddled with her husband and neighbor Larry Nelson, who doesn't have a basement. “We grabbed our blanket and this is our little cubbyhole. Three of us back in there." The tornado passed in seconds. When they looked outside, Larry’s house was gone. "Oh my God, it was devastating. He has nothing, nothing but the clothes on his back. You can't even express how you feel because you're okay and they're not. They're your good neighbors and they've got nothing."

Larry salvaged some of his collector coins and medication. “We seen it coming and we watched and it was moving awful slow. And we went down to the basement and it took about two-and-a-half minutes and it was over. I just couldn't believe it. I'm not rebuilding, I don’t think. Because I'll probably move to a smaller house sometime, live with my daughter for awhile."

“Huge, it was two of them," said Allan Andersen of the tornadoes. One back over here and one coming right at us."

Birds chirped above the rubble on Tuesday. A day before it was silent. “It was quiet as can be," said Troy Kremlachek. "No birds, no nothing." Troy is sore but alive. He remembers the storm coming in. “Started closing up windows and listening to the radio and then they said it was south and west of Stanton.”

He and his wife run a day care. On Monday, they were watching five kids. Minutes before it hit they all got in the basement. "We both, Amy and I, both got about tore out and that's when everything started falling." The house came down around them. “It looked bad. It looked really bad to me. I started trying to dig the kids out and every time I moved something, something else would fall." Troy was scared but within a few minutes he heard the voice of a first responder.

In just 30 seconds the entire home was destroyed. They pulled Amy and the five children out from the basement. They got Troy and his friend out. They know how lucky they were to be in the part of the house still partially intact. Deep bruising all over his body is what Troy is recovering from at Faith Regional. As for the kids, “They got to go home before I was even out of x-ray," said Troy.

Pilger, Nebraska

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