Grand Island Tornado: Kearney 911 and Gibbon Police, June 1980
As far as being a police officer goes, I was good at the job, but I was very new to this area and had very, very little experience.

June 1980:

At that time I was 21 years old. For my full time job, I was a 911 Communications Operator for the City of Kearney, in Buffalo County, Nebraska. My “part-time job” was as a Reserve Police Officer for the City of Gibbon, Nebraska. At that particular time in my public safety career, I was already established as an accomplished communications operator. I had preformed this job for the past two years, and had become an adept dispatcher for law enforcement, fire services and emergency medical services. As far as being a police officer goes, I was good at the job, but I was very new to this area and had very, very little experience. I had not yet been to the police academy, (and would not be there until 1982,) and by State Law was not expected to work without some degree of supervision while on the job. None the less, I thoroughly enjoyed the work, and I was fortunate to be working with very talented and dedicated professional people, both in communications and on “the street.”

Kearney Emergency Communications:

June 3, 1980 started as a normal day for me. I was scheduled to work the 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM Shift that week in the Kearney 911 Center. It was my Friday, and I would be working with June Deyo as my partner in the Radio Room. Having been up very late the night before, I slept very late that day, getting up in the afternoon. It was clear, warm and humid in Kearney, Nebraska that day. I recall that it was a rather unremarkable spring afternoon for that part of the world during that time of year. While leaving for work, I saw a thunderhead in the eastern skies, but didn’t give it much thought at the time. If that cloud was in the south west, a storm would hit Kearney later in the evening, but since it was in the southeast, it was not our concern.

The communications shift started out pretty normal. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies making traffic stops, requesting record checks. There were calls for service from the public, but nothing remarkable that I recall. There was some radio chatter between cops about the “cool looking cloud” off to the east. Central Nebraska was in a Tornado Watch, which was issued by the National Weather Service. We monitored this bulletin coming across the Civil Defense Warning System, known as NAWAS.

Just before sun set, one of the police officers who came into the office from patrol, stuck his head in the radio room, and told June and I that if we had time, we should go out, and take a look at this neat looking thunderhead off to the east. The setting sun has cast an orange color on it, and the view was quite unique and striking. Slowly, activity began to pick up on the state wide radio channels and the NAWAS as storm warnings were issued, weather spotters were deployed, and fire and law enforcement agencies in the region were transmitting radio traffic on various channels about the building storm.

Up to a point, this type of activity is normal during the spring season in Nebraska. We have thunder storms. Tornado watches and warnings are issued and dealt with as needed. Although the public safety community takes these issues very seriously, much of what was happening so far was more or less routine procedure for the season.

Then, Tornado Warnings started to be issued for Hall County, and specifically the City of Grand Island! A friend, Howard “Bill” Maxon was the Director at the Grand Island / Hall County 911 Communications Center, (GIEC). He had recently been promoted and appointed as Hall County’s Civil Defense Director just three days ago! Since he was the boss, he normally worked the day shift, but I was hearing him on the radio now, in the evening. If Bill had been called in, things were getting serious indeed. Although the weather at Kearney was clear, things started getting busy here as well. Shelton Police at the eastern edge of Buffalo County reported that the edge of the thunder cloud appeared to run north and south along the Buffalo / Hall County Line, between Grand Island and Kearney.

Our own Kearney Fire Chief / Buffalo County Civil Defense Director, Dwain Jorgensen, called in to learn the status of the situation. “Hey Randy, what’s happening in Grand Island?” I replied, “Well sir, if looks like they’re getting the beat up pretty bad! They have several tornados on the ground, and it looks like it’s not letting up.” He told me he would be into the office shortly. Soon, my boss, Kearney Communications Director, Hugh Rath appeared. Other Kearney communications operators, such as Vyrl Mackey and others arrived. We didn’t have to call them in. They just new what would be needed and they came.

It might be important to understand the relationship between our communications center and the one at Grand Island. Nebraska’s public safety communications was more or less organized on county wide or regional concepts. Buffalo and Hall County’s 911 Centers dispatched for the city and county law enforcement, all the fire departments, and all the publicly operated ambulance services in their respective counties. Additionally, each center was also a designated hub for the Emergency Medical Services Communications System. In the days before the wide use of mobile telephones, and instant, personal communications, we provided wireless paging, radio, telephone, and other communications for hospitals and physicians over a large area of Nebraska. Each center also served as the Civil Defense Warning Point not only for our own counties, but also several other counties in the state as well. We had direct toll free telephone hook up between the two centers to support each other in our various roles. We knew many of the operators at GIEC personally, and if we didn’t know them personally, we certainly knew them professionally and talked with them often on the telephone and radio.

Suddenly it became apparent that GIEC could no longer be reached on any of the state wide radio frequencies. State Troopers and fire units were commenting that they couldn’t raise GIEC on the radio! For a short moment, it was speculated that maybe the tornado had hit their center; after all we just monitored the National Weather Service Radar Station at Grand Island calling Norfolk Weather a short time ago on NAWAS, to report that they were taking cover. Maybe they were just so busy with local communications traffic they were unable to respond to the state wide traffic. (Possible. But not likely.) Then we recognized Maxon’s voice on one of the EMS radio channels. GIEC was up and running, but one of their tower sites must be down. We contacted GIEC via NAWAS and informed them that it appeared that their statewide lo-band radio on 39.90 MHz, 39.98, 39.82, and 39.50 was apparently 10-7, (Out of Service.) Shortly, Maxon, with stress in his voice, concurred that the radio channels were indeed down, and requested that Kearney take over the radio traffic for GIEC on those channels. Things were getting very, very busy indeed.

I had recently quit smoking about four months earlier. I guess my boss didn’t know that yet. He was going to the operators at their radio console to give them a short break from the stress. When it was my turn, he shook a pack of cigarettes to me, “Here, have a smoke.” It was the same brand I used to smoke. Under the circumstances, it sure sounded good. I continued smoking until February 1996!

Soon, we monitored Bill Maxon at GIEC calling Lincoln on NAWAS. Per request of Mayor, John Kriz of the City of Grand Island, he was requesting the Governor declare Hall County and the City of Grand Island as Disaster Areas. In addition, troops from the Nebraska National Guard were requested, as well as Mutual Aid Assistance from any available law enforcement and public safety agencies in the State who could lend assistance. At once, we issued tones to the Fire Departments at Kearney, Shelton, Ravenna, Gibbon, Amherst, and Elm Creek. Within short order, cops and firemen from across the state were on their way to Grand Island.

2:00 AM, June 4, 1980: My shift in communications was over. My console was relieved by Vyrl Mackey. As I headed toward the stairs, one of the Police Captains called to me, “Hey, Schulze! Aren’t you a Reserve Cop at Gibbon?” “Yes Sir, I am.” The Captain continued, “Put on your uniform and equipment when you get home. Proceed directly to Grand Island. They’ll know where to post you when you get there. All of the other Gibbon boys are already there or on the way, so you’ll have to drive your own car.” Had I known what I was in for, I would have been thankful I slept late. It was going to be a long time before I would be able to sleep again.

Proceed to Grand Island:

I rushed home to put on my uniform and equipment. I was pretty proud that they thought highly enough of me to ask me to assist at Grand Island. In actuality, any warm body with a pulse and a badge was being pressed into service. The students at the Law Enforcement Training Center were even called up. There was a great need for manpower at this point.

My drive to Grand Island, about 40 miles to the east could best be described as “interesting.” I drove a little 1976 Chevrolet Monza at the time. It was a sporty version of a Chevy Vega with a V-8 Engine, and about 8 inches of ground clearance under the car. I proceeded east on US-30 through the towns of Gibbon and Shelton, cities I knew quite well. Crossing into Hall County at Shelton, I could see the thunder clouds swirling ahead. Although the major part of the storm was over, the lightening was furious! As I approached Wood River, it dawned on me that the electricity in the area must be out. There were no lights on as far as they eye could see. Not surprising when you think about it. The storm no doubt wreaked great havoc on the power grid! This made for a particularly eerie trip. There was no road traffic at all. No lights. The only light came from my own head lights and a lot of lightening flashing in the sky. As I drove through Wood River and Alda, it felt like I was passing through ghost towns. No people were seen stirring in the dark. The whole time, I monitored traffic on my radio scanner. Status updates and requests for assistance continued.

Red Ed Sped Ahead:

After a while, I observed a flashing yellow light on top of a pick up truck stopped in the middle of the highway at the Junction of US-30 and US-281 on the west edge of Grand Island. As I got closer, I saw two young men in green Army fatigues. These were Nebraska National Guard Soldiers. I slowed down, and rolled down my window, as I approached, I heard one of them say, “He’s got plates from Number 9 County. Let’s turn him back.” As I pulled up to stop, he shined a flashlight into my car, and recognized that I was wearing a police uniform. He apologized, (not that he needed to,) explaining that his orders were to turn away all persons and vehicles of non-residents, with the exception of public safety personnel. As a Police Officer, I was allowed to pass. I asked if he knew where I should report for duty. His partner said I should probably report to the command post. “Ok, where’s the command post?” “It’s at K-Mart at Locust Street and Stolly Park Road, Sir!” came the crisp military reply. I was a little bit embarrassed that these two young men who were giving me the military courtesy due to a superior officer, something I had never experienced before. I said, “I’m not from Grand Island. Can you tell me how to get to Locust and Stolly Park Road?” The two soldiers looked at each other for a moment before one of them replied, “Neither are we. We don’t know.” One of them perked up, “Hey, wait a minute!” He ran to the pick up truck, and came back with a page that had apparently been ripped from the Grand Island, Ma Bell Telephone Directory. It was a map of the major streets of the city. “Well Sir, it looks like you take Highway 281 here, south until you come to Stolly Park Road. Hang a left and go east until you get to Locust, and K-Mart should be right there!” Under normal circumstances, these would have been very good directions, however, in this case I was directed to take my low riding automobile right through one of the residential areas hardest hit by the storm!

Going down US-281 was not a problem. At first, Stolly Park Road wasn’t a problem either, but as I got further east, I found tree branches and debris in the road, and as I got even further east, whole trees were across the road as well as parts of houses. Again, since there’s no electrical power, it’s very dark. The only lights are on my car. I stopped at one point and stared dumbfounded at a surreal looking road sign which for the most part appeared normal, except that it said, RED ED SPED AHEAD. I wondered for a moment if Dr. Suess had worked in the Traffic Engineering Department for the city, when it dawned on me that the storm had actually blown off the letters from the road sign. Before the storm, the sign read, REDUCED SPEED AHEAD.

I slowly worked my way further east, until I came across a man, wearing only his underwear, standing in the street, holding a flashlight. Apparently, I was the first public safety official to have come through this area. In my young, rookie policeman’s mind I’m thinking, “Ah ha! Here’s a citizen in need of assistance!” I asked the man if he was ok? He cheerfully replied that he and his wife were “just fine.” He went on to explain that the pile of splintered lumber before him had been his home of 35 years, and that the pile of tooth picks next to it was the home of his neighbors. Everyone got out without injury, and everyone was thankful to be alive. I asked if he needed any assistance, or if I could give a ride to him, his wife, or his neighbors to a shelter. He replied that it would not be necessary, that he and all concerned were just fine, and thankful to be alive. I don’t think he realized the enormity of the situation yet. Had I been more experienced, I would have at least obtained his name, so I could check up on him later. On the other hand, at my young age, I would have to admit that I was pretty amazed at what I was seeing. I went on my way after he thanked me, as he continued to survey the scene in his underwear. I often wonder how things turned out for him and his family.

Down to Work:

Eventually, I arrived at the Command Post, located in the K-Mart parking lot. It didn’t take long before I found people I knew. I found my Sergeant, Mark Jones (AKA Jonsey), and Gibbon Chief of Police, Tom Sabin. They were with a few Kearney Police Officers, and Buffalo County Sheriff’s Deputies. Each had a cup of coffee in one hand, and a doughnut in the other. (Cops! Go figure!)

They hadn’t been stuffing coffee and doughnuts all night. They had just gone on break after a few hours of intense work. Raul Vasquez directed me to a counter inside of K-Mart where I might be able to purchase a pack of smokes. (I was hooked again!) Inside the store, I saw a young man, wearing a green rain coat, a KC Royals baseball helmet, and a gun belt. I later came to know this man as Kyle Hetrick of the Grand Island Police Department. Apparently, his home was hit by the storm, and his uniforms were ruined. None the less, here he was, on duty, serving the public with what little he had.

Jonsey and I were paired up, and put to work in short order. Our first detail was to accompany members of the Gibbon Fire Department to the Holiday Inn on South Locust Street. This hotel had been hit hard by the tornado, and we were told to expect casualties. (So far, there was one confirmed fatality in what had been known as the Pagoda Lounge, near by.) As it turned out, we were the first public safety officials to arrive at the Holiday Inn. The hotel manager was very relived to see us. She had experienced a long and frightening night! As far as she could tell, all of her guests were accounted for, and were now in the dome area, near the swimming pool. The firemen went on with their work of looking through the damaged area of the hotel for injured people or fatalities. Since none were located, Jonesey and I were released to go about our way.

It was now the twilight of dawn. On the street, we were speaking with two Grand Island Police Officers in their police car. A very agitated young man came running up; he was reporting that the Pizza Inn restaurant, just down the block was being looted. We responded, along with the Grand Island Officers. Jonsey went around the right side of the building toward the back, while I went around the left side. The G.I. Officers would go through the front door. As I arrived around the rear of the building, the back door was kicked open from inside, and out came a man in a red and white checked shirt and blue jeans, holding a 12 gauge, pump shotgun! I drew down on the man with my service weapon, as he shouted, “POLICE OFFICER! DON”T SHOOT!” This was Officer, Bruce Farrar of the Grand Island Police Department. Unknown to me, he had been in the back seat of the patrol car with the other two Grand Island Officers. It turned out we didn’t find any looters. I thank God I didn’t shoot Bruce!

Jones and I started foot patrol up Locust Street. It must have been about 5:45 to 6:00 AM when we heard shots fired! We ran to the area, when we came across another officer from another small town, and shouted for him to come along. Once we reached the area where we thought the shots came from, and found a place of cover, the third cop asked what we were after.

Jones: “We’ve got some shots fired!”

Third Cop: “Wow! Really? How many?”

Jones: “At least, three, maybe four.”

Third Cop: “Oh. That was me.”

Jones and I: “What?!”

Third Cop: “That was me.”

Jones: “What were you shooting at?!” (This is becoming heated by now.)

Third Cop: “A rabid dog.”

Jones and I: “What?!”

Third Cop: “A rabid dog.”

Jones: “Where’s the dog?” (It’s getting really heated now.)

Third Cop: “I don’t know.”

Me: “What?!”

Jones : What do you mean you don’t know?!”

I don’t think I need to go into the quote by quote exchange of information at this point. Suffice it to say that Mark Jones let out a tirade of expletives and language that was still in progress by the time our back up arrived. I don’t believe anything “official” ever happened as a result of the actions of the “Third Cop.” I do know that he retired from law enforcement and moved to another state a short time after this incident. As far as we know, the dog survived.


The Long Hot Day and My 15 Minutes:

It was daylight by now, and our foot patrol continued up and down Locust Street. We didn’t have a lot of excitement at this point, but I saw some pretty strange things. Like the car dealer, which had a few of the cars from the lot dropped by the tornado through the roof of their building? Their headlights were on. Metal street light poles, wrapped around branchless trees like a cork screw. Everything was blown apart, without fire.

A Grand Island Police Captain approached Jones and I and asked if he could put us to work. Jones was detailed to the crew to recover the fatality at the Pagoda Lounge. I was detailed with another GIPD Officer to direct traffic and control access to the area at the intersection of Locust and Bismark. This intersection is normally a busy intersection, controlled by a traffic signal, but since electrical power was out, we would need to direct traffic manually. This intersection was also considered to be the northern boundary of the South Locust Street Disaster Area. (The city had several, separate areas of destruction.) While directing traffic, our orders were to stop traffic entering the disaster area and deny access unless they possessed a pass issued by the Police Department, allowing access.

I’d been up for over twenty-four hours by this time. It’s getting really hot outside, and it’s getting close to noon. Other than wearing a dark blue uniform where it’s very humid and 98 degrees, things were going pretty smoothly for the first few hours until a middle aged woman, in a large green station wagon loaded with kids approached the intersection from the north. I stopped her car, and politely asked the driver for her pass. “I don’t need no f#<ing pass! My daughter lives down there, and I’m going in to help her out!”

“I understand. I’m sure she would appreciate your help. If you could simply stop by the Police Department, located just four blocks up the street and explain your situation to them, I’m certain they will be more than happy to issue a pass to you.”

“I don’t have f#<ing time to get a pass! I need to go in now!”

“My orders are pretty specific on this subject. You will have to get a pass before I can let you in.” We turned her around, and sent her on her way.

I have no idea if she ever made it to the Police Department or not, but about ten minutes later, here she comes again, this time from the east. Again, I stop her. “Did you get your pass?”

“I don’t have time for your damn pass. You’re going to let me in NOW!”

“Miss, it’s hot and I understand how stressful it is with all that’s going on, but you have work with us here. You must obtain a pass before we let you in. Simple as that. No pass, no entry.” We gave her directions to the Police Department, turned her around, and send her on her way.

Ten minutes later, here she comes again. This time she comes from the east. Again she makes her demands, and again we explain the facts to her. My patience is wearing a little thin by this point, and we explain that her behavior will not be tolerated. We turn her around again, fully expecting that we will not see her again without a pass.

Another ten minutes goes by, and here she comes again, this time from the north. My partner is waving her to stop, but she’s not stopping. I step in front of her moving station wagon and order her to HALT! She comes to stop just before her bumper meets my knees. Now I’m mad. I’m really mad! If this was a normal situation, this woman would have been placed under arrest on the spot, but under the circumstances, this isn’t possible. I have no means of transporting her to booking, I’m on foot. We have no two way radio with us to call for transport, not that any would be available. And don’t forget that she has five kids in the wagon with her. I come around to the driver’s side of the car, open the door and ordered her out of the vehicle. I slam the door shut, and then escort her to the sidewalk. I now proceed to get right in her face, and loudly explain what a real pain in the a$$ she has become and that we will not tolerate her conduct any further, in no uncertain terms. (The brim of my campaign hat is touching her forehead.) My arms are flying, as I’m pointing up the street and down the street. I finally told her to leave, and not come back without a pass. By the time I was done, this poor lady shrank from an obstinate 5 foot to a submissive 3 foot. I don’t like being a bully, but this seemed to be the only thing this individual would understand under the circumstances. We turned her around, and sent her on her way. What I didn’t notice at the time was the television news crew on the opposite corner!

She didn’t return again, with or without a pass. This led me to wonder if she really had a daughter living in the disaster area, or if she ever had any legitimate business in the area at all. I never saw her again until a news documentary aired about four months later. The narrator was saying the day after the storm brought special problems for law enforcement. There I was in living color, complete with mirrored sun glasses and campaign hat getting into the face of this woman. You could not hear what I was saying, but you did not have to good at lip reading to figure out what I was saying.

About 2:00 PM, I was relieved from this duty to take a break, get some chow, and cool off. I was taken to the command center to find that the parking had to be cleared to allow a place for the Governor’s helicopter to land. My car was towed to another area of the lot, and while doing so, they pulled lock stem out of the driver’s side door. It turned out that they decided not land the chopper here due to all the foreign object derbies around the landing zone.

I met up with Jonsey. He told me about his detail removing the fatality which sounded pretty grisly. Before the storm, we had made plans with other friends to all go out to dinner together. I offered that due to the events, we should probably cancel our plans until another date. Jonesy said, no way! After events like this it’s best to get out and blow off the stress. He insisted that we keep our plans.

After our break, I was detailed to accompany a police officer from Aurora, Nebraska to the Capitol Heights area where we were assigned to foot patrol. I saw some pretty interesting things here too, such as a house with all the walls blown out. Only the wood frame and the roof were there, except the pictures and mirrors were still hanging on the studs. We talked to the residents, and listened to their experiences. I worked this detail until relieved by two Dodge County Sheriff’s Deputies, and departed for Kearney at about 6:00 PM.

I got back home, and cleaned up to meet Jones and our friends. Jonesey didn’t show up at all. I fell asleep at the restaurant. I was home and in bed by nine.

Shots Fired:

I think I slept through until 2:00 PM the following day, when I checked in at the office. My boss told me that they had made arrangements for one of the others to work my communications shift, and that I was to meet up with Captain, Dick Larson and Sgt. Leonard Wiggins to work in Grand Island for the night shift on patrol.

When we arrived at Grand Island at 6:00 PM on June 5th, we observed that much of what had been chaos was now controlled confusion. We attended a briefing, and learned that a plan was in place and working. National Guard Troops and US Marine MP’s had been assigned to hold the major intersections of the city and control traffic. Civilian law enforcement would patrol assigned areas or “districts.” Our mission was to preserve the peace, prevent looting, and enforce curfew. I was paired up with Deputy, Jerry Ables from Seward County. Our ‘district’ was mostly a residential area south and east of Bismark and Locust. We also patrolled some of the business along Locust. Amazingly, many of the civilians we met were carrying guns! Although not concealed, it was a little uncomforting.

Well into the night, we were in a residential area, with our spot lights surveying the area when Jerry says, “Did you here that? Listen!” Pop! Buzzzzzzzz! “I think someone’s shooting at us!” I got on the radio, and called out our location and situation. I was putting on my helmet and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t fitting! (I was putting it on backwards.) Within minutes, the area was flooded with law enforcement. At least twenty cops arrived on the scene. The Grand Island officers knew right where to go, and located this guy on a front porch. He was working on a 12-pack of beer, and was clearly drunk. He had a .22 rifle by his side.

Captain Trosper opened the chamber of the gun, smelled inside, and pronounced the weapon had been fired recently. He asked the guy what he thought he had been doing? The drunk replied he was shooting at the lights of looters. The only lights in the area where the spotlights on top of Jerry’s patrol car! Capt. Trosper ordered the subject to be taken into the custody, when the guy lifted his shirt, and shouted, “I’ve got dynamite!” Observing the dull, red sticks coming out of the man’s pockets, everyone stepped back a step until one of the guys observed, “He’s got road flares!”

The flares were taken from the subject, and he was placed under arrest. He went ridged, refusing to move as an officer tried to lead him away. We lifted him up like a pile of lumber, and stuffed him in the back of the patrol car. I understand he was convicted of a number of misdemeanor offenses, and served several months in the county jail.

The rest of the shift was uneventful. I had breakfast with Jerry at the end of our tour, and was dropped off at the State Patrol Office where I caught a ride with State Trooper, Keith Wagner back to Kearney.

Years After the Storm:

Later in my public safety career, I went on to work for Bill Maxon at the Hall County 911 Communications Center, (GIEC,) while at the same time working part time for the Police Departments of Shelton, and Wood River, Nebraska. I went on to become Chief of Police at Arlington, Nebraska, and as a Police Officer for many years at Valley and Elkhorn, Nebraska, just outside of Omaha. I retired from law enforcement in 1996 after working for a short time in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri.

At the time the storm hit Grand Island, I had two years of public safety communications experience, and four months of experience as a police officer. In the days between June 3rd and June 7th, I had received more experience than I would receive in the next four years! I met many officers and deputies from across the state that I would work with again on many projects and cases.

Last time I heard, June Deyo was working her way up through the ranks as a Police Officer for the City of Rapid City, South Dakota. Vyrl Mackey is a Communications Operator for the Nebraska State Patrol at Omaha. Howard Maxon is still Director of the Hall County Emergency Management Agency. Mark Jones left law enforcement in 1981 to take a factory job at Kearney. Last I heard in 1983, Jerry Ables worked for a private security firm at Omaha. Tom Sabin passed away some years ago as had Dwain Jorgensen. Last I heard, Kyle Hetrick was a Captain at Grand Island PD, and Capt. Larry Trosper is still on the job. Kearney PD Officer Raul Vasquez is a Criminal Investigator. Dick Larson is now Buffalo County Chief Deputy. Many of the other Kearney Officers and Grand Island Officers are still there, doing their duty and working hard, while others, like myself have moved on to other livelihoods. I’ve been a professional in Information Technology, and have lived and worked in Kansas City since 1995.

I believe it’s safe to say that our experience during the first week of June 1980 affected many of us in different ways. I know it had an effect on me, and my public safety career that would last through 1995. I remember there was a roster at the command post that we were asked to sign, so that we could be paid for our time spent in Grand Island. None of us that I know of filled out the roster, because we weren’t there for the money, we were there to help. That was our duty.

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