HICKMAN, Neb. — Jim Stoddard’s world started spinning. Then it twisted, tumbled and turned upside down.
A tornado skipping across eastern Nebraska on Thursday night shook Stoddard around the inside of his little trailer. The twister tossed the vehicle across a campground like a pinball as trees crashed down around him.
“It was wild!’’ Stoddard said Friday. “I’m a happy man. I’m not a happy camper, but I’m a happy man. I’m alive.’’
Stoddard’s camper was heavily damaged by the tornado that struck Wagon Trail Lake State Recreation Area near Hickman. It was the first of a one-two punch of tornadoes that hit eastern Nebraska in a 24-hour period Thursday and Friday.
The Thursday tornado bounced across the countryside near Hickman, Bennet and Palmyra for nearly an hour, starting about 10 p.m. It was rated an EF2, with winds of 111 to 135 mph. It destroyed two large recreational vehicles at Wagon Train Lake, damaged more than a dozen rural homes, tore through a trailer company on Nebraska Highway 2 and downed power lines across parts of Lancaster and Otoe Counties.
No serious injuries were reported.
At M&M Trailer, about two miles west of Palmyra, owner Roland Meyer said the twister destroyed four buildings and the office. Trailers were scattered everywhere.
“Of the 50 trailers I have, probably about half of them are damaged,” Meyer said.
Meyer estimated the damage at $500,000. Friends, family members and volunteers helped him clean up Friday. Despite shattered glass, boarded-up windows and overturned trailers, M&M Trailer remains in business.
“I’m open,” Meyer said Friday. “I sold a trailer today.”
Earlier, the storm damaged a house south of Bennet owned by Randy and Vicki Kempkes. They lost the roof from their kitchen and sunroom.
Northeast of Bennet, the storm damaged a farmhouse and other buildings owned by Clark Jensen. Renters Warren and Sandy Jensen were in bed when the storm passed by. They never made it to the basement, but they escaped injury.
Friends, neighbors and family members swarmed the farm to clean up, cut fallen trees and salvage what they could.
Stoddard’s trailer was one of three in the 1,061-acre Wagon Train Lake recreation area damaged by the tornado. He was parked away from the others in a primitive campsite.
Stoddard, 57, said he was bunked down in his 13-foot fiberglass trailer when he heard the civil defense sirens. He picked up his cellphone to call his sister in Hickman when a weather emergency text message flashed on the phone.
“I just read the message and thought I better head for the ditch,’’ Stoddard said. “Then, bam! It hit. It sounded just like trains, without the whistle.’’
The lightweight trailer started spinning, then flipped and rolled up an embankment.
“Then it nose-dived,’’ Stoddard said.
The trailer hitch caught in the ground, sending the camper end over end.
“We came down the hill, rolling one way or another,’’ Stoddard said. “I lost track.’’
The trailer traveled about 150 feet in a U-shape path before coming to rest in the ditch — the same one that Stoddard had planned to flee to moments earlier.
Debris pinned Stoddard inside the camper. Under him were the crushed remains of his plywood and fiberglass bed. He lay under a splintered wood shelf, a television and jumbled possessions.
Stoddard picked his way out of the wreckage. He had gone to bed wearing only his underwear. He later found a pair of trousers and pulled them on, before finding the pair that held his wallet.
“And I wanted a cigarette,’’ he said.
Stoddard found his cigarettes and a lighter. He was about to light up when he heard the hissing sound of his propane tank leaking. “I decided to wait on the cigarette.’’
A flash flood raced through the campground, rising about halfway up the side of the trailer.
The trailer was not hitched to Stoddard’s 1991 Chevrolet van. The twister had spun the van 180 degrees and blew out all windows except the windshield.
“I had all the windows rolled up because it was raining,’’ he said. “They’re unrolled now.’’
Gravel, grass and other grit caked the inside of the vehicle.
As Stoddard retrieved possessions scattered across the campground and from the creek on Friday, he noticed scuff marks across the ground that marked the camper’s tumbling path.
Fallen trees covered the path in places, indicating that they fell after the trailer passed by.
“If one of those big trees had hit, it would have been the end of Jim,’’ Stoddard said.
He found his pillow in the creek. His picnic table was in the ditch. Another table was wrapped around a tree trunk. The back and the battery of his flip phone had disappeared, but the device appeared otherwise undamaged.
Stoddard was checking on the occupants of the other trailers when he heard rescuers, including his brother-in-law Todd Harlan of Hickman, digging through his trailer in search of him.
Stoddard shouted across the campground, “I’m over here. It’s Jim. I’m all right.’’
His sister, Lori Harlan, bandaged cuts on his right arm. In addition to bumps, bruises and scrapes, Stoddard has a big lump on one shoulder. “And I’ve got a big headache going on,’’ he said.
Stoddard said the storm blew apart the other two recreational vehicles at the lake. Only walls and debris remained. The occupants of at least one of the campers were away from the vehicle when the storm hit, he said.
Stoddard said he had been camping at Wagon Trail Lake for about two weeks, after the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission closed Stagecoach State Recreation Area southwest of Hickman until spring.
Stoddard said his campsite at Wagon Train Lake was pristine and quiet.
“If this would have happened on a weekend, there would have been at least 100 people and dozens of campers and tents and children. It would have been a real bad deal.’’
Parts of Wagon Train Lake are temporarily closed because of wind damage. In addition to damaging camping vehicles, the storm destroyed three restrooms and a picnic shelter. Wagon Train Lake’s main campground was not damaged and remains open. It has 22 camping sites with electricity and a fishing dock.
Shortly before noon Friday, Stoddard hitched the 42-year-old trailer to the van and slowly drove out of the campground. He planned to take the camper to his parents’ home in nearby Panama and retrieve another van before returning to the campsite to look for his lost tools and other possessions.
“I’ll miss that trailer,’’ he said. “It’s been home for quite a few years. It was very comfortable, cozy, quiet and a safe place to rest.’’
World-Herald staff writer Anna Gronewold and photographer Kent Sievers contributed to this report.