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It was a typical summer thunderstorm. Rain mixed with nickel-sized hail pushed through Antelope County on Friday night with 60 mph wind.
When the storm reached Neligh at about 9:15 p.m., Tanner Knutson was just returning home from playing softball in Riverside Park. The 25-year-old had no idea he was about to make a decision that would either cost him his life or leave him thanking God for being alive. Things changed quickly as a live powerline landed on his pickup, leading to his co-workers responding to save him.
“I look at them differently now,” Knutson said. “Those guys are heroes to me.”
About 10 minutes after the rain started, the howling wind caught the roof of the old Wynn Auto Body building along Highway 275, slamming it straight east into a trailer full of tires and a power pole. Sparks were seen from a block away. Third Street, even Cubby’s gas station across the highway, went black in a split second.
Knutson’s house was directly across the alley from Wynn Auto Body. He was pulling into the alley in his pickup to park and go inside for the night when the wind flipped the neighboring roof toward his vehicle. The powerline stopped the roof from hitting him.
“It was almost like slow motion,” Knutson said while shaking his head. “I saw the roof hit the pole and all those tires. It freaked me out, so I backed up quick. That’s when I got wrapped up in the line.”
Knutson said he couldn’t see behind him and thought he’d backed into a tree. For reasons he may never known, Knutson decided not to get out of his truck and look. Instead, he called his brother, Grant, who was inside the house and asked him to look behind the pickup. The line was wrapped around his tires.
If Knutson would have stepped out of the pickup, the results could have been fatal. He could have been electrocuted because leaving a vehicle charged by a powerline would have provided a path to the ground.
“I would have died, probably,” Knutson said matter of factly. “It’s crazy to think, but God was there for me. It’s really surreal to think about it. He was watching over me.”
Knutson has worked for the City of Neligh for about 18 months, so he immediately grabbed his cell phone and called Jayce Ellenwood, the electrical lineman on call. Ellenwood, lineman Scott Kester and Neligh Police Chief Mike Wright were on scene within a few minutes. Even before they arrived, Knutson said they were on the phone with him.
“Jayce kept me calm by talking to me and walking me through it,” he said. “They were all so calm and my life was on the line. Their lives were on the line. That power line could have flipped in the wind. Anything could have happened.”
Knutson admitted he was scared while sitting in his truck, but he knew not to leave the vehicle. After all, his dad, Todd Knutson, is the operations manager at Elkhorn Rural Public Power District in Battle Creek. While Knutson knew not to leave the vehicle, he said many people may not know the dangers.
“My dad hammered me as a kid never to get out, and they told me not to get out,” he said. “If something happens, people need to know to call 911 first. They need to know not to get out.”
Once he was untangled, Knutson went inside and watched the linemen work. As the storm continued, Ellenwood went into the bucket and began repairing the lines.
“It was crazy how Jayce got in the bucket and went that high in the air with the rain, wind and lightning. It’s unreal what linemen do to get people power. People complain when the power goes out, but these guys are risking their lives up there. I really wish people realized that,” he said.
The City of Neligh had power back up by about 11:15 p.m. Once the morning rolled around, they returned to remove the roof and repair the powerlines.
Knutson praised his co-workers for not only how they responded to his emergency, but for their effort to ensure the situation was immediately resolved.
“We have a great electrical department with the City of Neligh. Josh (Capler), Scottie, Jayce, Dean (Bly), and Mike was there, too,” he said. “They were all great. I can’t thank them enough for saving my life.”