On the evening of March 13, as a cold rainstorm intensified, rancher Lowell Fisher grew concerned about the well-being of his calving cows and baby calves. He bundled up, hopped in his tractor and set off through the dark night and driving rain to check on them. It was about 10 p.m.
As Lowell reached the south end of his shelter belt, he encountered surging floodwaters from the nearby Ponca Creek, which had overflowed its banks. The swift-moving waters rose rapidly and overwhelmed his tractor engine. Lowell was trapped in a swirling sea of water.
He called 911 for help. Lowell also called Nathan Gillaspie, who worked at the ranch, was familiar with its layout and would know exactly where to find him. As the Spencer Fire Department and Rescue Unit mobilized, Lowell watched as the rainstorm turned into a full-blown blizzard.
Upon arriving at the scene, responders quickly improvised a rescue mission in the midst of the snowstorm. Roger Nelson, Fisher’s neighbor, drove his tractor into the water as far as possible — about 200 yards. Then the rescuers tied long ropes to a flat-bottomed boat owned by Jerry Motacek. Next, Jerry, Nathan Gillaspie and Austin Motacek — who served as captain — navigated the boat through the deep, icy waters toward Lowell’s tractor. They pulled up alongside it, and Lowell climbed from his tractor into the boat. From the water’s edge, others helped pull the boat back to shallow water. Austin, who was wearing high waders, got out of the boat and walked through the waters to guide it to land. Finally, around 2 a.m. March 14, Lowell reached safety.
However, that wasn’t the end of the rescue mission. Roger, Nathan, Mike Hoffman and Mike’s daughters Lauryn and Amelia hooked Lowell’s stock trailer onto Roger’s tractor. They carefully drove through water to reach nine baby calves that were surrounded by floodwaters. After rescuing the calves, they brought them into Lowell’s barn. This second rescue took place between 2 and 3 a.m. in whiteout conditions.
As blizzards and floods struck the state in March, rescues like the one in Spencer happened all across Nebraska. In the Fremont area, first responders sprang into action after receiving urgent calls for help from a stranded family with a 2-year-old girl living along the Elkhorn River. With Highway 30 blocked by floodwaters, seven rescuers volunteered for a waterborne rescue — using two of their own airboats. Wind gusts of 40-50 miles per hour resulted in massive whitecaps, and the huge waves capsized the first boat. The second boat also overturned as its crew tried to assist.
With their boats sunk, the men contacted Fremont’s fire chief as they struggled to stay afloat in the freezing water and choppy waves. In turn, he initiated a chain of communication that resulted in the Nebraska Army National Guard sending a Black Hawk helicopter from Columbus. The chopper airlifted the men to Fremont Municipal Airport. Upon landing, they were rushed to Methodist Fremont Health hospital. Their body temperatures were dangerously low from having been submerged in the icy water. Thankfully, all seven men fully recovered, and — in true Nebraska fashion — they were soon back out performing more rescue missions. Fremont’s fire chief nicknamed them “The Magnificent Seven.” The family they had initially tried to rescue was eventually transported to safety by a Nebraska Game and Parks airboat.
While driving his tractor to aid a rescue attempt, James Wilke of Columbus lost his life when the bridge he was traveling over washed out. James courageously died doing what he had done all of his life — volunteering to help a neighbor in need. His bravery and life of service were highlighted at halftime of this year’s Nebraska-Iowa Hy-Vee Heroes Game.
We’ll have another opportunity to honor James this week. Today, we are recognizing flood heroes who stepped up to save the lives of others at a ceremony in the State Capitol Rotunda. This past June, first lady Susanne Shore and I asked Nebraskans to submit nominations for a Flood Heroes honor. We received hundreds of nominations. Among the state’s many flood heroes, those who took direct action to save the lives of others are receiving their official honor at the Capitol today. The ceremony is the first of several ways we plan to honor heroes from the floods over the course of the next year.
It’s been amazing to see the grit and togetherness that Nebraskans have shown in 2019. I know that our state will continue to display its trademark toughness and determination as we rebuild bigger and better than before this year’s natural disaster.