I was living in Grand Island, Nebraska on June 3, 1980. I remember that day so well. My young family consisted of my husband and my soon to be two-year old daughter. We were young and had purchased our home just six months prior to this day. I had a home daycare business and we were making our way in life. Our life changed on that day forever!
It was a hot and muggy day and the officer that I was babysitting for remarked as he dropped his three-year old daughter off prior to his three pm shift beginning that he thought it would be an interesting night. We both knew that it was really hot and it seemed a little early to be so warm. Around six pm all the Mom’s had picked up their children from my daycare and we all anticipated seeing each other the next morning. My husband was a house painter and actually came home early from a job he had just finished so we headed to the bank to deposit the check in our account. We both remarked about how hot it was and sticky too and how there were large strange clouds building to the west of Grand Island. We came home and I cooked hot dogs and green beans for supper. We also had some potato chips and a salad. Our supper was interrupted by the weather sirens going off and soon my phone rang. My sister lived on the west side of Grand Island in a trailer home and she was letting me know that she and two of her children were coming over just in case we needed to go to the basement. I said that was fine and soon she was at our home. Her husband was working out-of-town and one of her son’s was staying with our parents for the week so her eldest, aged twelve, and her youngest who had just turned one were making themselves comfortable in our home.
It wasn’t long and the first tornado went through and we all headed to the basement. As we were not directly in its path we ran back upstairs to check out any damage in the neighborhood. So far so good and as we were checking things out we noticed that the television station suddenly went blank, the local station had been hit by a tornado we found out later and was knocked off the air. We took our radio downstairs and listened to the updates and it wasn’t long until the second tornado hit the area. We were still doing fine when the lights went out so we hunted up candles and matches ready to light in case we needed them and a flashlight so that we could see and then we found our battery operated radio to listen to updates. The sirens were going off almost continuously and it was beginning to rain.
My sister and I loved watching the sky so we left my husband downstairs with the children and we went upstairs to look out of the windows. The sun was still shining a little but the rain was pelting down pretty heavy when we began to hear what sounded like a train coming toward us and the ground began to shake a little. My sister and I both looked at each other and she said we better get to the basement because this was a tornado coming right at us. She was right! We dove down the stairs and pulled the mattress off the guest bed and covered the children with the mattress as best we could and covered the mattress with blankets then dove under with our children so that we were all protected as best we could be. Soon the whole house was shaking and we could hear what sounded like bombs going off and then it sounded like a herd of elephants were running around in the yard. We could hear glass smashing and things hitting the house and it was loud, oh so loud that it hurt our ears. It seemed like it would never stop. Minutes ticked by as if they were hours. I cried out to God to save us and prayed with such fervor. I have never before or since been so afraid as I was during those thirty minutes that we listened to the destruction of a neighborhood and our home.
Slowly the noise began to stop and all we heard was sirens and rain coming down. My husband poked his head out from the mattress and said that we should stay inside our cocoon. He said there was broken glass where a tree branch had been driven into the basement window in the room where the guest bed was located. He took the candle and lit it so that we could have the flashlight as by now it was pitch black with darkness. He slowly made his way up the stairs from the basement and we heard him cry out in shock and we could feel the house moving above us. He ran back down in an excited and agitated way, clearly a little shocked, and told us that the walls in our bedroom were gone and that all he could see was blackness. I told him that I would go look because I had great night vision and he didn’t and neither did my sister. She warned me to be careful because the floor might not be sturdy.
I ran up the stairs and into our small kitchen. The kitchen window was blown out and glass was everywhere. The jade plant that I had in the middle of the table was still standing but many pieces had been broken off and it was pitted with glass and strange fivers. The rain was really pouring in the window. I turned the corner into the living room and saw a large tree across the large picture window. The storm window was gone but the inside window had held and the tree was not able to come into our home. I opened the front door and a tree greeted me. We were trapped and couldn’t get out the front door. We would have to go out the back door. I turned into our bedroom and saw nothing but blackness and I could see that the window was blown out and rain was coming in the window but no rain where the blackness was. I crept over to the wall and discovered that all the stucco had fallen off and the underlining was showing through and it was all black. I then ran to my daughter’s room and saw her window also blown out and her crib was filled with shattered glass, tree debris and other unknown stuff. Her favorite wind-up baby doll would have to be thrown away. I ran back to the kitchen and opened the back door which led to the garage. I tried to open the door that led out of the garage and it wouldn’t budge. I peeked out from the garage door windows and saw that a huge tree had fallen on top of our car and was blocking the door. We were completely trapped and would not be able to get out of the damaged home until someone came to our rescue. I went back down stairs and reported what I had found.
Sirens continued to go off and soon we heard another tornado coming and after that one another came within blocks from our home. As the night progressed we found out from people driving past our home that the main street nearest us was completed closed due to debris and flooding. We asked about the different areas around town where the babysitting children and their families lived and found out that some of those neighborhoods were completely demolished. It continued to rain and we were able to use the shower curtain to cover one window and then tried to use the curtains to keep rain water off the furniture. We also needed to keep one window facing the street open so we could communicate with those passing by. As the sun began to rise over the longest and most frightening night of my life we saw that the six mature trees that used to line our property were all down and some of them had blocked us inside the home. We also saw parts of restaurant signs and what had once been frozen food strewn across our yard as well as every kind of home construction debris you could think of. We also saw that the neighbor across the street’s home had lost its roof and the home next to our home had been knocked off its foundation. Some of the buildings that had been the business district a block and a half from our home were also gone or badly damaged..
A couple of hours after the sun rose some sheriff deputies and rescue people came with chain saws and cut down the tree that blocked our garage door so we could come out of our home. We saw all the telephone poles broken and the wires were all down. We were careful where we walked because of all the dangers in the yard. We also saw some weird things like nails that were driven into the side of our home that were not there the day before and there was a splinter of wood that pierced the door frame of the garage door and looked like a large toothpick protruding out from the frame. And there were bed pillows and a cowboy hat that looked like a dead person. I was thankful it was not a dead person! I was thankful we all survived the massive tornadoes that terrorized our community for more than three hours. There were more than thirteen tornadoes that hit our small community and we learned that the house my husband had just finished painting and we had deposited the check into our bank; well that house was nowhere to be found. There was nothing but the foundation left.
The cop that had dropped his daughter off before his shift began said that he was in the patrol car when he saw a tornado behind him coming up fast so he floored the car and turned the corner thinking that the tornado would continue in a straight path. It didn’t, it turned the same corner that he did and soon he was overtaken by the tornado and lived through it. When it had passed and he opened his eyes he saw that his car was facing the opposite direction than what he had been going. He said that he was thankful he had quickly closed his eyes and shielded his face or otherwise he would have been badly hurt. He also said all the windows were shattered in his car too but amazingly enough he could still drive it and so he drove back to the police station to get help for his cuts from flying glass.
Three people died in the tornado and one of them my husband knew because he had painted his home just a few weeks earlier. We were all safe and my sister’s home was never damaged. Our home had a lot of damage but nothing compared to what others had to contend with. Our lives changed that night and I learned more than any other time in my life that God is with you in the midst of any storm. I am certain that God protected us that night. I am certain that He was our refuge. Thank you God, for your protection then and now. I can say that I am a survivor of the 1980 Grand Island, Nebraska tornadoes.