Photos: Tornado damage in Wayne
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Leaping into the tornado was their only hope.
Landing in a deep roadside ditch, they buried their heads face down in the grass. Pieces of lumber, metal, glass and other debris whizzed by at speeds upward of 170 mph. Rocks peppered their bodies.
Seconds earlier, Michael Anderson and John Dunning witnessed a John Deere dealership explode into rubble as they drove by during a thunderstorm of pelting rain and hail. Debris launched into the air, twirled above the highway and blasted over their pickup truck.
“We need to get out of here!’’ Anderson exclaimed.
And they did, bailing out of Dunning’s pickup as one of the most powerful October tornadoes to strike anywhere in the United States in years tore past Wayne, Neb., last week.
They never saw the funnel. It was wrapped in rain.
Anderson and Dunning were among at least 15 people injured Friday by a tornado that tore a 19-mile path across northeast Nebraska. The twister packed estimated peak winds of 170 mph and swelled to 1.38 miles wide. It caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, state officials say.
Anderson suffered a deep cut on his right hand and walked away from the encounter.
Dunning wasn’t as fortunate. He suffered multiple broken bones and other serious injuries when a commercial-size steel trash bin landed on him in the ditch. He is in a medically induced coma at a hospital in Sioux City, Iowa.
Anderson and Dunning are administrators at Wayne State College. They and other college officials were returning to Wayne from strategic planning meetings at the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago.
Their American Airlines flight from O’Hare International Airport landed at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City.
The afternoon sky was clear and sunny.
Anderson and Dunning climbed into Dunning’s Ford F-150 pickup for the 48-mile drive home to Wayne. It was about 4:30 p.m.
Far over the southwest horizon, storms were brewing.
“We got a few calls from family and friends that there were thunderstorms in the area, to watch out and hurry home,’’ Anderson said.
Anderson and Dunning didn’t know it, but as they neared Wayne from the northeast, a tornado was forming southwest of the community. It flattened corn crops and tore large limbs from trees.
Gaining strength as it moved northeast, the funnel ballooned to more than 1¼ miles wide and struck a farmstead about 4½ miles southwest of Wayne.
About two miles south of Wayne, the tornado struck a farmstead and damaged two houses along Nebraska Highway 15.
Eight miles east of Wayne, where Nebraska Highway 35 from the Sioux City area turns west toward Wayne, Anderson and Dunning could see a looming thunderstorm. Anderson’s wife called to relay a report of a tornado near Stanton, about 22 miles southwest of Wayne.
Anderson said he and Dunning saw no indications of a tornado. They drove on.
Shrouded in rain, the tornado ripped a path along the southeast corner of Wayne, a community of 5,660. The twister missed the downtown and residential neighborhoods but damaged a softball complex on the southeast side of town.
About one mile east of Wayne, Anderson and Dunning drove into rain. Still, they saw nothing ominous. Heavy rain and hail pelted the pickup as the pair neared Wayne Municipal Airport and a highway bridge over Logan Creek.
Then the tornado bore down on an industrial park on the eastern outskirts of Wayne just as Anderson and Dunning crossed the bridge. About 50 yards farther and the rain-wrapped tornado hit.
“The buildings on the south side of the highway exploded,’’ Anderson said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb hit them.’’
Large metal structures were mangled into rubble by the funnel’s winds, estimated by the National Weather Service at 136 mph to more than 166 mph.
Large pieces of debris from Grossenburg Implement and other businesses swirled in the air left of the truck.
“We need to stop!” Anderson shouted.
Dunning was slowing the pickup and pulling over to the shoulder when the windows blew out. Anderson crawled and scrambled down the 15-foot embankment and covered his head with tall grass and his hands.
“I wasn’t in the military, but I imagine this was what it’s like to have bullets whizzing over your head,’’ Anderson said.
Before jumping into the storm, Anderson said he saw Dunning trying to open his door. The force of the wind appeared to make it impossible. As he lay in the ditch, Anderson didn’t know Dunning’s whereabouts.
Anderson said there was a momentary calm as the core of the tornado passed over.
“I could feel the air sucking out of me. It was very difficult to breathe."
Then the horrific wind returned.
Anderson heard a massive, thumping “boom, boom, boom’’ noise. It sounded like a tractor or combine from the nearby John Deere dealership tumbling down the road like a pingpong ball.
Anderson didn’t want to expose his face to flying debris by turning toward the sound but he took a chance. He peeked and saw a massive steel dumpster moving in his direction from the edge of the highway. He rolled to his right about eight feet a moment before it crashed into the ditch.
That’s when Anderson saw Dunning. His colleague somehow had gotten out of the truck and was taking shelter in the ditch about 15 feet from Anderson.
“The dumpster hit him full on and rolled over him,’’ Anderson said.
“I ran to him. He was talking but not making sense,’’ he said. “I could tell he had serious injuries.’’
Anderson feared that Dunning would bleed to death. He reached for the iPhone in his shirt pocket to call 911. It was gone. He climbed out of the ditch to stop traffic and send someone to the Wayne fire station for help.
He said a few vehicles driven by storm chasers with laptop computers and tripod-mounted cameras raced by without stopping.
“I don’t know what I looked like, I was probably covered with mud and blood, but that made me angry,’’ Anderson said.
Anderson said other storm-chaser vehicles stopped. One went for help. Others provided towels and blankets for Anderson to use to help Dunning. One passer-by volunteered to go to Anderson’s house and tell his teenage children that their dad was injured but OK.
Dunning was taken to the Wayne hospital, where he was stabilized before being transferred to Sioux City.
The Wayne hospital emergency room was so busy that Anderson closed the skin flap on his wounded hand with gauze himself and walked six blocks home to check on his children. He later returned to have the wound stitched.
Anderson, 59, is Wayne State’s vice president of academic affairs.
Dunning, 44, is the college’s chief information officer. He is a Wayne State graduate and has worked with the college’s information technology systems since he was an undergraduate. He is married.
“He’s an integral part of the campus,’’ Anderson said. “It sounds like he’ll be OK, but we know he has a long road ahead of him. We hope to have him back with us soon.’’
After crossing Highway 35 and blowing past Anderson and Dunning, the tornado — rated EF4 on a scale of 5 — took dead aim at Wayne Municipal Airport. Two hangars were destroyed and private aircraft were tumbled and ripped apart.
Continuing northeast, the tornado struck another farmstead.
Crossing into Dixon County, the storm dissipated six miles north-northwest of Wakefield.
What happened to Dunning’s truck? It coasted about 40 yards along the road’s shoulder and came to rest in the ditch.
Anderson turns 60 later this month, an age when some men create lists of things they want to do before they die.
“Jumping from a moving vehicle into the middle of an EF4 tornado should not be on anyone’s bucket list,’’ he said.