By Ed Payne
(CNN) — It was a menacing sight — two powerful tornadoes swirling side by side through the countryside of northeastern Nebraska.
At one point, the twin twisters straddled a state highway.
“It was terribly wide,” Marianne Pesotta told CNN affiliate KETV in the town of Pilger. “I drove east (to escape). I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there.”
The decision to flee may have saved her life.
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger said up to three-quarters of Pilger, a town of about 350 people, was destroyed Monday. The severe weather also caused damage in the towns of Wisner, Stanton and Pender.
All four communities are within about 40 miles of each other, about and hour and a half northwest of Omaha.
The aftermath was almost too much to take for some like Marilyn Andersen, another Pilger resident
“I’ve never been through this before,” she told affiliate KMTV through tears. “It was an experience, and I don’t want to go through it again.”
Two deaths were reported. Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger said a five-year-old was killed in Pilger, but didn’t say how. Another person died outside of town, he said.
Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk said 16 people were critically injured by the storm system.
Early into Tuesday morning, officials were assessing the damage, trying to determine how many are injured and how much damage was done.
“We’re still digging people out,” said Sanford Goshorn, the emergency manager in Stanton County, where Pilger and Stanton are located.
Wisner is in Cuming County, and Pender in Thurston County.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who will tour the storm damage on Tuesday, issued a state of emergency, putting the National Guard on standby to help if needed.
The state emergency management agency reported “severe damage” across the affected counties.
“They talk about war zones, yes, this looks like a war zone,” Goshorn said. “This looks like a war zone in Pilger.”
CNN’s Kisa Mlela Santiago and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.
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