PILGER, Neb. — As two giant tornadoes bore down on this tiny farming town in northeast Nebraska, Trey Wisniewski heard the storm sirens, glanced out at the blackening sky and rushed with his wife into the basement.
"My wife was holding our animals, and I was holding on to my wife. We could feel the suction try to pull us out of there," he said Tuesday.
Suddenly, the house was gone, and debris rained down on them. And then, the storm that hit so suddenly Monday afternoon was gone, allowing them to emerge and see what was left of the 350-person farming town of Pilger.
Much of the community was gone and two people had died. The disaster, delivered by twin twisters rare in how forcefully they traveled side by side for an extended period, left some residents doubting that the town could rebuild, even as they marveled that the death toll hadn't been worse.
"This is by far the worst thing I've ever seen as governor," said Gov. Dave Heineman, who flew over Pilger in a helicopter Tuesday and then walked through the town, trailed by reporters.
One of those killed was a 5-year-old girl, Calista Dixon, said Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger. Cody Murphree, the girl's brother, said in a statement that his mother, Kandi Murphree, 42, was in a medically induced coma in Omaha after the tornado destroyed their home.
The other fatality was a motorist, David A. Herout, 74, of Clarkson, Neb. He died in Cuming County, a few miles east of Pilger.
At least 19 people were taken to hospitals.
Up to 75 percent of the buildings in Pilger were heavily damaged or destroyed. The tornados ravaged the small downtown. Several grain bins on the south end of Main Street were swept away, and others remained crumpled on the ground. Between 45 and 50 homes in Pilger were demolished; about a dozen others were damaged beyond repair in Dixon County.
Homes south and west of downtown fared even worse, with most reduced to piles of debris or gone entirely.
While the governor said he was confident the community would rebuild, cafe owner Linda Oertwich wasn't so sure.
"Pilger's too small and the devastation in these homes will cost too much to rebuild," said Oertwich, who will decide whether to rebuild her Village Bar and Cafe after hearing from her insurance company.
The tornadoes were of roughly equal size, about a mile apart. The northern twister, confirmed as an EF4 tornado, struck the town before the two merged, according to the National Weather Service.
It was the size and intensity of the tornadoes that made them rare, said Nebraska state climatologist Al Dutcher, noting that usually one tornado weakens and shrinks in such a situation.