Omaha World-Herald - April 30, 1995 - 20 Years After

Cheryl Mau Bramhall never will forget May 6, 1975, the day a car fell from the sky onto her mother’s head.

Tom Lindsay and his family remember the day for the “guardian angel” who appeared out of nowhere to pull them, shell-shocked, from the ruins of their home.

For Rose Marie Jackson, it marked the last time she ever walked.

May 6, 1975 – the day a tornado slashed a nine-mile scar into the heart of the city – is a day that will live in infamy for Omahans.

Anyone who lived in Nebraska’s largest city during that time probably still remembers where he or she was when the sirens bean to wail and the terror touched down.

For those who found themselves in the midst of the storm’s fury, the date holds even more memories and meaning.

Three people were killed that day. Even more remarkable was the number of people spared.

It was estimated that 30,000 people lived, worked or went to school in the storm’s deadly path. They heeded the sirens and huddled in basements, under tables or wherever they could find cover.

On Saturday, 20 years – in the case of many families, a generation – will have passed since the Tornado of ’75.

But many survivors say the events of the day continue to touch their lives, both for good and for bad, sometimes in ways they are only now beginning to realize and to understand.

Here is the story of May 6, 1975, as told by some of those who lived through it: the Maus, the Lindsays and the Jacksons.

Tuesday, May 6, started out hot and hazy.

Colleen Mau remembers the uncomfortable, sticky heat. She rarely wore shorts but chose to that day, not knowing that by the end of the day she wouldn’t own any clothes.

She felt something ominous hanging in the thick air. She had heard about the threat of severe weather and hoped that her four daughters, Cheryl, 16, Cindy 15, Lori, 12, and Kristi, 8, would be dismissed from school early.

Rose Marie Jackson, then 42, liked the warmth. When she came home for lunch from her job at the post office near 72nd and Pacific Streets, she thought about how she soon would be working in her garden.

By mid afternoon, it started to rain. That meant the end of the workday for Tom Lindsay, a plumber who had been working on an outdoor job in Papillion. He headed for his home (on) Nina Street in Omaha’s Westgate neighborhood.

The rain didn’t stop the Ak-Sar-Ben races, where Lindsay’s 17-year-old son, Tom, went off to work after school.

Lindsay’s 13-year-old daughter, Roseann, walked home from school and watched the dark clouds in the southwest as they parted, came back together, and then parted again.

The churning in the sky that Roseann saw was caused by the lethal mixing of the hot, humid air with a new front of cool, dry air coming in from the north. By the time she got home, there were severe thunderstorm warnings on the television.

At 4:14pm, the National Weather Service reported a possible tornado.

At 4:29pm, a resident reported a funnel cloud descending west of 96th and Harrison, and the civil defense alarms sounded.

At 4:32, police reported a tornado on the ground, tearing the roofs off apartments at 96th and Q Streets.

Lindsay stood in a back yard with his neighbor and watched the black, swirling cloud, less than a mile away and closing fast.

It went through the railroad trestle, on to the Westgate ball fields, and headed for the Interstate. Lindsay and is neighbor joined Roseann, Lindsay’s wife, Delores, and two neighbor children under a table in the basement as the tornado roared into the Lindsay house.

“I remember opening my eyes twice in the whole thing,” Rosann said. “The first time there was a blue flame in the air. The second time I saw the basement steps being sucked up. Then all you could see was sky.”

The tornado was gone as quickly as it had come. The Lindsay’s home was gone, hurled into a neighbor’s house across the street.. Even the table was gone. But they all were OK.

The Omaha twister at that time was following the northeast path most tornadoes take. But at 72nd Street, it took a freakish turn due north.

That took the black funnel right down Omaha’s glittering strip and put it right on top of Mrs. Jackson.

She and 10 co-workers had watched the approaching storm before taking shelter, Mrs. Jackson under a metal work table. The force of the storm slid the heavy table away, leaving Mrs. Jackson exposed as a hail of bricks came down. She was buried in the debris.

“Please, God, not yet,” she said she thought. “I have so much left to do.”

Farther north, near 70th and Blondo Streets, the Mau children disagreed on what to do about the tornado warning. Cheryl thought they should take shelter. Lori caller worried sister a “Holy Joe”.

Butt all headed for the basement after their mother looked out the window and in a frantic voice said, “There’s stuff flying around.”

The girls pulled a mattress over their heads. Within seconds, glass whirled around the basement. Cindy Mau watched from under the mattress as the corner of the house lifted off the foundation. She also grabbed Lori, who was bobbing up off the floor.

When it passed, the girls found their neighbor’s car suspended just above their heads, and their mother on the floor bleeding from a deep cut, apparently inlicted by the car’s bumper. “I thought we were going to be orphans,“ Cheryl said.

Mrs. Mau was knocked out by the blow but was revived by the gasoline that was pouring out of the car onto her face.

“I said, ‘We have to get out of here. The house is going to blow up,’“ Mrs. Mau said. “I didn’t realize there wasn’t a house anymore.”

Blood streaming down her face, Mrs. Mau took the family dog in her arms and led her daughters down the street looking for help. Her cut would require 40 stitches to close.

The Maus didn’t realize at the time that one of the twister’s three victims lay dead in their back yard.

Margaret Baker, 86, who lived across the yard and four houses to the north of the Maus, was deaf, and may have been oblivious to everything until her home blew apart.

Back at the post office, co-workers dug frantically to pull Mrs. Jackson from the rubble. A doctor happened to be driving by on 72nd Street. He fashioned a back board from a piece of wood so she could be taken to a hospital. She had suffered a broken back and crushed ribs. At the hospital, a doctor told Mrs. Jackson’s husband, Verne, she might not make it through the night.

The Lindsays also received help in the storm’s aftermath, from a man who in their memories holds a mystical air.

Almost immediately after the storm passed, they recall, the young, bearded man was standing above them on the edge of their home’s foundation, asking if they needed help. One by one, he pulled them out of the basement.

“I was not a small person, and he lifted me like a feather,” Mrs. Lindsay said.

“Though it was raining the man’s hair and hands were dry,” Roseann said. And after asking if there were any other people around who needed help, he disappeared almost as suddenly as he had come.

“I don’t know who he was,” Lindsay said. “He was sent by someone, I guess.”

Said Mrs. Lindsay, “He had to be our guardian angel.”

Minutes later, the Lindsays had a tearful reunion with young Tom. He had left Ak-Sar-Ben, where 9,000 spectators waiting for the sixth race had watched the tornado pass within a mile of the grandstand.

The poignant moment was captured by World-Herald photographer S.J. Melingagio and spread across the front page the next morning.

Now, 20 years later, all three families consider themselves lucky.

Mrs. Jackson was left paralyzed from the waist down. She has been confined to a wheelchair but has refused to be bitter.

“What’s to be bitter about? It happened. That’s all,” she said. “Besides, my husband wouldn’t stand for me being bitter. Thanks to him, I’m able to get by.”

The Maus and Lindsays both say they were lucky to survive.

The wall of the Lindsays’ basement foundation collapsed, except at the spot where they were crouched. The Maus still wonder how their neighbor’s car somehow got hung up on the foundation of their home. That was the only thing that kept the car from crashing down on top of them.

“By all laws of physics, it should have fallen on us,” said Lori, now Lori Mau Groves.

All three families say they were amazed at how quickly the city recovered from one of the most destructive storms in U.S. History.

Within a year, nearly all 572 homes, two schools and 55 businesses destroyed or severely damaged by the twister had been rebuilt. The Maus, Lindsays and most of their neighbors all rebuilt on the site of their former homes.

Said Roseann Lindsay, “You didn’t have time to get depressed.”

All the victims also said they were touched by the outpouring of assistance from other Omahans who gave their time and money. Neighborhoods pulled closer.

“Where there were problems with other neighbors, there was all of a sudden communication,” said Bob Mau, who was at work when his wife and daughters rode out the storm. “People got along, and we still do.”

Other effects of the storm also live on. The Maus said they all were turned into skywatchers.

“I think we spent that whole summer in the basement,” said Cindy, now Cindy Mau Gottsch, who recently had a tornado shelter built into her new home in hastings.

Lori said the tornado may have been the reason she grew up to become an emergency room nurse. “My most vivid memories are of Mom in the emergency room,” she said.

Lindsay said the Tornado of ’75 is something the people who lived through it think about all the time.

“It was a terrible time, and a very fortunate time,” he said. “You look at that picture, and you thank God you’re alive.”

Written by Henry J. Cordes, World-Herald Staff Writer
Transcribed by J. Scott Hayden, Webmaster

Tom Lindsay, 17, facing camera, is greeted tearfully by his father in front of their home. At his left is Mrs. Lindsay and daughter Rosann, 13. Tom wasn't home when five members of his family and a neighbor escaped injury in the basement as their at 7913 Nina Street was damaged. Neighbor's homes are seen in the background.