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Tornado finds its own victims

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gothenburg, Neb, -- Our chase team spent 11 hours and drove 400 furious miles across Kansas and Nebraska yesterday but never saw a tornado.

Brad Stickelman of Brady, Nebraska, saw a tornado without driving a foot.

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Brad Stickelman (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

At 4 p.m yesterday the chase team was racing west on I-80 into an oncoming storm system. At the same time, about 90 miles ahead of us, Stickelman was in his garden and looked up to see a twister coming over the hill.

It was a quarter-mile wide. It wasn’t making a sound. It was 250 yards away. And it was headed straight at his 100-year-old house.

In a vast and sparsely populated state like Nebraska, you have to be exceptionally unlucky to have a tornado hit your home. Especially when you live in the middle of cattle country and your closest neighbor is two miles away.

Stickelman was yesterday’s unlucky tornado victim. For the last 12 hours CNN and the Weather Channel have been talking about "a home near North Platte" that was demolished by a tornado.

That was his brick ranch house.

Every 30 minutes both channels also have been showing amazing video footage of the very twister that also destroyed Stickelman’s horse barns, his machinery shed and badly damaged his cars and horse trailers.

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Television footage of the twister that destroyes Stickelman's home. (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

Stickelman, 58, didn’t shoot the video. And he hadn’t seen it until it came on the TV monitor behind him. He and his wife Janine were too busy running for their lives. They barely made it to their basement, where they cowered in a shower stall as their house and every important thing they owned in the world was scattered to the wind.

Stickelman and his wife, who were unhurt, were given a free room last night by the owners of the Super 8 Motel in Gothenburg. That’s why he was standing in the breakfast lounge early this cold, rainy and rotten morning, sipping coffee in his cowboy hat, jeans and boots.

Stickelman says he was "Born and raised a cowboy." He is a rancher who has made his living raising cattle. He’s on a horse every day, and his legs are bowed to prove it. One of his denim pockets holds a tin of Skoal. Another contains a cell phone.

Stickelman, like most ranchers, wouldn’t say how many cattle or acres he owned. But he was perfectly willing to talk about the random act of violence nature dealt out to him yesterday at 4 p.m.

He’s seen several tornadoes before, just not so close. While he and his wife and their English setter Champ were hiding in the shower stall, the sound, he says, reinforcing the familiar tornado profile, "was a deafening roar."

He remembers hearing glass breaking and remembers how the wall of the shower stall "kept sucking in and out, tapping me on the shoulder."

Neighbors have already sprung to Stickelman’s aid. They’ll be back out to his ranch again this morning to help put what’s left of his stuff in trucks and to help him fix his fences.

He and his wife came to motel late last night and are going out to the ranch again early this morning.

"It’ll look pretty different when we go up there this morning," he says, tucking a pinch of snuff behind his lower lip. "It’s amazing what it can do to your life in two minutes."

His wife Janine says it’s "just a part of life," he says, but she is taking it pretty hard. He is steady and stoic. He’s clearly a man who keeps his emotional cards close to his vest.

He knows how extraordinarily unlucky he was yesterday, but he’s not going to whine. "It’s one of those things," he says with a wink as he leaves, "but we’ll make ‘er."

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