Former Midwest Bank president recounts risking his life to save his employees during 2014 Pilger tornado

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PILGER, Nebraska (KTIV) -Deemed a hero by those he helped get to safety during the tornadoes, former Midwest Bank President Gene Willers, risked his life to save his employees.

June 16th, 2014. Gene Willers, the Midwest Bank president in Pilger at the time, woke up and said it was a pretty warm day.

He then went to a bank meeting and was later going to go to the Elkhorn Acres Golf Course for a tee time- a tee time that he never made it to.

“I stopped at the bank to do a few things and just see how everything went for the day,” said Gene Willers, Fmr. Midwest Bank President. “And that’s about the time all these alerts went off.”

Alerts warning Stanton County that a tornado was spotted in Stanton–
And that there was one on its way to the community of Pilger.

“We had an individual that was working for our ATM and safe company that was there,” adds Willers. “And I asked him to check the vault and see if we could lock the vault from the inside, and he looked and said, ‘no there isn’t anyway of closing the vault door from the inside.”

And that’s when Gene Willers knew, he had no choice but to lock everyone else in the bank vault from the outside, and go and find shelter for himself.

“After I’d locked them in, I looked out the windows again and I could see the top of the funnel cloud,” said Willers. “So I went into the crawl space under the bank.”

While the tornado ripped through his town, Willers says that minutes felt like hours.

“Thoughts were, first of all, did I make the right decision to put them in that vault? I also had a concern about my family— at the time I questioned if I was going to make it or not,” said Willers.
“And I also prayed, I did a lot of praying.”

His prayers gave the former bank president a moment of peace— but it didn’t last for long.

“When it was coming through, it sounded like to freight trains colliding- it was that loud,” said Willers. “You could hear the wood wrenching, busting apart. About that time, the door to the crawl space was ripped off. There was just dust everywhere. The noise that I had heard, the crashing, was actually the wall above me coming down.”

“Was there ever a time that you thought, ‘this is it?” asks Reporter, Jennifer Lenzini.
“About that time,” says Willers. “It really sounded horrible.”

But that wasn’t “it” for Willers.
Eventually, when it sounded calm, Willers emerged from the crawl space and made his way to the vault to check on his employees.

“There was debris all over,” said Willers. “And I just turned my head and saw there was no building left. And you could kind of see out in the community, and it was just flattened.”

They then walked to the street to see how the rest of their hometown was…

“You looked out, and my first thought was just from what it looked like out there, I figured there had to be a lot of death,” says Willers.

Gene Willers risked his life on June 16th, 2014.

But he humbly refuses to wear the title, “hero”.

“In a small business like that, you kind of become a family,” adds Willers. “And as the president, I’m kind of the head of the family. And you take care of your family.”

Gene Willers says he was impressed with employees during the high-stress event–

They went into the vault without hesitation.

He adds they all received counseling afterward, to work through emotional trauma.

Willers is now retired as president- but says the bank has come a long way in the past 5 years.

A brand new building reopened in July 2017.

Willers says it is more modern, with a lot of updated technology.

He adds, that business has grown and they are doing well.


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PILGER, Nebraska (KTIV) – For former Midwest Bank President Gene Willers, June 16, 2014, is a day he will never forget

After alerts were sent out, warning Stanton County of a tornado heading towards Pilger, Willers’ first thought was keeping everyone safe.

At the time, they had an individual at the bank that was working for their ATM and safe company.

Willers asked him to check the vault and see if they could lock the vault from the inside-he told him it was only possible from the outside.

Willers then knew he had no choice but to lock everyone else in the bank vault from the outside and go and find shelter for himself.

While the tornado hit, Willers says that minutes felt like hours.

“When it was coming through, it sounded like to freight trains colliding- it was that loud,” said Willers. “You could hear the wood wrenching, busting apart. About that time, the door to the crawl space was ripped off. There was just dust everywhere. The noise that I had heard, the crashing, was actually the wall above me coming down.”

“Was there ever a time that you thought, ‘this is it?” asks KTIV’s Jennifer Lenzini.

“About that time,” says Willers. “It really sounded horrible.”

Willers is now retired as president- but says the bank has come a long way in the past 5 years.

A brand new building reopened in July 2017.

Willers says it is more modern, with a lot of updated technology.

He adds, that business has grown and they are doing well.

KTIV’s Jennifer Lenzini will have more about Gene Willers on Sunday on KTIV News 4. 

Jennifer Lenzini

Jennifer Lenzini

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