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Gene Willers: Bank president 'prepared to die,' vaulted staff from tornadoes

Gene Willers is a NE Midwest Bank branch president in the small town of Pilger, Nebraska. But on Monday, Willers became something more – a hero to his staff and now an inspirational story of self-sacrifice in the face of impending disaster.

Willers was inside of the bank with eight staff members on Monday when they heard the tiny town’s tornado sirens screeching outside. A tornado was heading their way – two of them as a matter of fact – and Willers knew that the safest place for them to ride out the twisters would be inside of the massively heavy bank vault of steel and concrete.

“We closed out all the cash and so forth and got prepared,” said Gene Willers. “We could see it out the window we could see it coming. Then the sirens went off and about five minutes later the tornado hit.”

But saving eight lives meant potentially sacrificing one – the vault had to be closed and locked. Otherwise the raging whirlwinds would suck out anyone huddled inside of the refuge. And the only place to secure the vault door was from the outside.

“The only thing that was really secure was the vault. We determined that you can't lock the vault from the inside so I had the other eight go in and I locked the vault from the outside and then I went down into the cellar,” Willers said.

An EF4 supercell funnel cloud was carving up Nebraska towns, but ultimately did not strike the bank. But a second twister – weaker yet still powerful – did rip into the bank, tearing off the back brick wall and exposing the inside rooms, making the rear of the bank resemble a dissected dollhouse.

“We’re like a family and I’m the President and I take care of my family. That’s all there is to it,” Willers remarked. “I get a little emotional about this. I was prepared to die. I thought I was going to die.”

Willers found shelter in the pitch-black basement and took solace that eight of his staff would live to see their families once again, even if he never did. He described being alone in the basement: “It was just deathly quiet, you could hear the sirens going off. Our batteries were beeping because the electricity was off. It was just pitch black, and I was by myself just preparing for the worst. I've said to others that I didn't plan on coming out.”

But out he came, pushing through tumbled bricks and ripped drywall. About an hour later, all were reunited.

Employee Peggy Brabec spoke of her altruistic boss: “He was there the whole time. He was our lifesaver. He actually put our lives in the vault to save us, and then he went down (to the basement).”

Much like any crisis, some rise to the occasion while others give way to fear or selfish concerns to save only themselves. Not so for Mr. Willers, who we’re happy to report is a true hero – in every sense of the word.

“Were a small staff, a close staff,” the father figure said. “It’s family. That's how we feel about each other and that's how we treat each other. We all hugged and were darn glad to see everybody alive.”

According to out of Norfolk, Midwest Bank has “set up a donation fund with all proceeds going to the Pilger Community Development Fund to aid in the town's recovery process.”

“It's not going to be the same but I think it can be a good community and I plan on that,” concluded Willers.

We’re quite certain that with Mr. Willers at the helm, all will be okay.

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