Tragedy, heart-break, loss, destruction and fear are just some words to describe what the residents of Pilger, NE experienced on June 16, 2014. That date will forever be etched in to their history as well as the minds of all of the volunteers that came together to help a community in need. My friend, Jared, and I were among those volunteers on June 18, 2014.
Around 1800 people came together on that Wednesday to lend a helping hand in recovering the residents’ lives. We met at the high school in Wisner to get checked in and ready to catch a bus over to Pilger. The Red Cross was there along with other volunteer groups getting people checked in, providing safety briefings and providing bus transport to/from Pilger. On the bus ride to Pilger we saw the path of the tornado due to the stripped trees and majorly disturbed soil in the fields. The soil looked like someone took a large disk and disked the ground. Some people on the bus said you could follow the path for miles and miles.
They divided the town in to 4 quadrants to help break up the volunteer groups and equally distribute everyone. We got our instructions to sort through the debris and put it in to different piles. This made the cleanup faster and easier for when the heavy equipment came through to haul it all off. Many volunteers and residents were already hard at work when Jared and I arrived so we walked around a bit before finding a damaged property that needed more help. The house was still standing but had major damage from a massive tree that fell on it. The owner also had a shed with some classic cars inside that got damaged but they should be able to be restored.
After that property was mostly cleared, Jared and I moved North towards the school. This part of town was in the direct path and everything was completely destroyed. CO-OP was situated right in the middle of town and used to have 21 grain bins of varying sizes. We could only see remnants of what looked like 3-4 grain bins; I would have never thought there were 21. At one of the properties by the school there was a giant metal truss that was all mangled and keeping us from getting to a lot of debris. We ran into some guys from the OFFUTT Air Force Base Fire & Rescue crew. They had a saw with a carbide blade and started cutting the truss in to manageable pieces. The truss was about 2/3’s cut up and their blade was getting worn so we found a guy with a Bobcat to drag the pieces out to a pile for us. Man was that a life-saver. Also while at that property I found a tree that had a piece of wood and a piece of metal stuck in it like a dart in a dartboard.
At this time we decided to take a lunch break and headed to the park. It was really amazing seeing all of the groups in the park helping out. Tyson Foods was there grilling burgers and chicken and supplying ice and cold water/gatorade. Other groups were making snow cones, providing fruit, wash stations and hot dogs. I saw some people from Lowes there but one of the residents said they were trying to sell tools to people. I did not confirm this myself, but if that was true, that is truly horrible of them.
After cooling off in the shade and regaining some energy, we headed back out to find more properties in need of our help. We ended up on the South side of town at a house where 4 other guys were working on clearing out a garage. The garage had a tree fall on it caving in two wall and the roof. The fallen tree had already been cut up and moved so we helped them clear out the rest of the debris. A car was still in the garage and had part of the roof sitting it. We were able to grab the roof and get it to come down so we then had to remove the garage door so the owners could get their car out if needed. A guy with a telescoping forklift with a claw on the front came and drug a big portion of the roof and wall out of our way since it was too heavy to move by man-power. He did in 3 minutes what it would have taken us 6 and hour or more to accomplish. A huge thanks to that guy!
After getting that garage cleared out we hopped across the street and helped a family retrieve their chest freezer from the basement and load it on to a trailer. They said they had everything they needed and the insurance adjuster hadn’t been there yet so we didn’t want to start sorting the debris. It was getting pretty late in the afternoon and the 100+ degree weather was wearing on us hard. Our bodies couldn’t take on water fast enough to stay hydrated and we were running out of steam. We started making our way back to the park to get hydrated and cleaned off a bit. On the way back we heard that earlier in the day volunteers rescued a dog that was trapped in a basement. That made volunteering that much more worth it!
Even though we were beaten, battered and sun burnt, just the sight of all of the volunteers gave us the energy throughout the day to keep working hard. There were people from all over Nebraska and the surrounding states; what an amazing gathering of hearts to help a community that was ripped open.
Pilger will continue to need volunteers and donations, so please join the cause and help rebuild the lives of those affected.