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Memories still fresh 9 years after deadly twister episode

By Connie Meyer
Independent Staff Writer

Grand Island looked like a battle zone after a series of tornadoes razed the city on June 3, 1980. Fallen trees, lumber and glass made the streets impassible. Five people lost their lives and the tornadoes caused $300 million in damage. Yet nine years later the city has lost its weather-weary look. Gone are the piles of trash. And gone are the volunteers who flooded Grand Island from across the state.

But the memories are still vivid.

"I spent the night in the basement," said 62-year-old Ed Gebers, a patient at the Veterans Hospital the night the tornadoes hit. "We went down on the elevators. They crammed in as many people as they could."

The Veterans Hospital was damaged when one of seven tornadoes tore down Broadwell Street. Most of the windows blew out and gusts of wind shattered the glass front door.

Gebers said it took about 10 minutes for hospital personnel to move the 150 patients to the basement.

"The ones they couldn't move they covered up with blankets in places where there wasn't glass flying. A nurse stayed with them," he explained.

"I guess I was kind of scared, but I figured whatever was going to happen would happen," he said, when asked how he felt during the hours spent in the hospital basement.

Gebers, who was being treated for an infected foot, chose to go home the next morning rather than transferring to Lincoln and Omaha with the other patients.

After the storm threat subsided at about 2 a.m., Gebers and nine other patients were crammed into an undamaged six-person room. Surprisingly, Gebers said he even got a few hours sleep.

But others weren't so lucky.

Tom Fisher, fire department employee at the time, said he didn't sleep for at least two days after the disaster.

The 50-year-old veteran firefighter had just gotten off work Tuesday night. But his relaxing evening at home didn't last long. The National Weather Service reported severe weather in the Grand Island area and off-duty firemen were ordered back to work, Fisher recalled.

"He was only at the station a few minutes. when a dispatcher reported, among other sightings, a possible funnel cloud near the Veterans Home. Fisher and the other firemen at Fire Station 2 were sent to locations scattered across western Grand Island.

Fisher, 41 at the time, said he felt like he was floating in the ocean as he drove west on Capital Avenue. Trees and debris were flying everywhere.

"I couldn't make it. I had to stop in the middle of the road," Fisher said.

Laying down in the front seat of his pickup, Fisher called the station and told the dispatcher he couldn't go any further.

"I just laid there and prayed. The truck was rocking and everything was shaking," he said.

When he tried to sit up, Fisher faced a smashed ceiling and the splinters of glass from shattered windows. "I crawled out the window on the driver's side. I hadn't heard a thing. How that could happen and me not know, I don't know,'" he said.

Fisher said he it was a miracle he didn't die in his pickup that night.

"I don't know," he said when asked what saved his life. "The Lord had something else for me to do. It was no doubt a miracle."

After crawling from the front seat of his pickup, Fisher met up with other rescue personnel and began to sift through the wreckage.

"We just searched and rescued. We went from house to house to find who was injured. You didn't really have time to think about anything," Fisher said. "You'd just go from house to house and pray there was no one dead."

When asked how he felt Sunday night when tornado warnings were issued twice for Grand Island, Fisher said he reacted pretty much like anyone else.

He listened to the sheriff's report on the scanner and sought cover in the basement.

"You can't sit and fear something. You just have to hope it passes. It's just part of the country we live in," he said.

Fisher, who now works as a janitor at West Lawn Elementary School, retired from the fire station about a year and a half after the June 3 tornadoes.

Howard Bacon, chief of police in 1980, said he too spent most the night retrieving people from destroyed homes.

"There was a lot more of them (tornadoes) than I wanted to see the results of," he said. "But of course I wasn't particularly looking for funnel clouds. We were just very fortunate we didn't lose any more people."

Although it was a scary night, Bacon said, he was too busy to think about the safety of his family. "I'd be foolish if I told you I wasn't scared. But when you're a public servant you've got to work and you don't have time to get scared.

"All and all the city really rallied behind it and did a marvelous job in getting us back on our feet," said Bacon, who has since retired from his job.