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'Swept off the map' — Family loses brother, business when Niobrara dam failed

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It was still dark early last Thursday when Scott Angel got the word — the Spencer Dam had been compromised by the ice-packed Niobrara River.

He lives a quarter-mile up from the river valley, so he headed down U.S. 281 to check on his family bar and bait shop, Angels' Straw Bale Saloon, and his childhood home, where his brother Kenny now lived.

But he was driving through a blizzard. He didn’t see the ice slabs strewn across the highway and his pickup ended up stuck, forcing him to walk home to get his skid loader.

After pulling the pickup out, he aimed its headlights toward the house and waited for the darkness to ease.

But when it became light enough to see, sometime after 7 a.m., he couldn’t see the house and bar.

“Every man-made structure in the valley was swept off the map,” he said Wednesday. “You try to take all that in and comprehend what it means. My first reaction was the hope that Kenny was somewhere where I could find him, and I just began searching for him.”

He was soon joined by search parties, deputies and firefighters from Holt and Boyd counties. They found what could be pieces of the home and bar four to six miles downstream, O’Neill Fire Chief Terry Miles said, but they still haven’t found Kenny Angel.

The 71-year-old is one of two men still missing but believed to have been swept away last week by the historic and deadly flooding that, at one point, covered a third of the state.

On the Niobrara, searchers were hampered by dangerous conditions, including acres of jumbled ice chunks the size of small trucks. About 20 people started scouring the riverbanks downstream Friday, but the search was suspended a few hours later.

Continuing was just too dangerous, said Deb Hilker, Holt County’s emergency management director.

“The icebergs and ice masses along the banks were too large,” she said. “You have to climb on these things, and you don’t know what’s underneath them.”

A firefighter nearly slipped through a gap between chunks, his legs dangling in a void beneath him, but he caught himself, she said.

The formal search could resume late next week if better weather improves conditions, Miles said, though smaller, informal groups of volunteers have been returning to the river to look for Kenny Angel.

Hilker has twice asked state emergency management officials for help from a helicopter — she made the second request Wednesday — but was still waiting for an answer. Pilots with the Civil Air Patrol offered to help, but small planes are not as effective.

“There are so many ice blocks on the river,” she said. “If you’re not low-altitude or low-speed, you’re not going to see what you’re looking for.”

Kenny Angel was home alone when the dam failed, Scott Angel said. His wife, Linda, was in Colorado visiting her mother and their four boys are grown and out of the home.

The couple owned a business maintaining the grounds around cell towers, his brother said, but Kenny Angel was also a second-generation partner in their family business.

Their father had opened a smaller bait shop and bar in that valley in 1967 but it was destroyed by a tornado nearly 30 years later. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, Kenny and Scott and their sister Coral opened the Straw Bale Saloon. With the river as a backdrop, they served drinks, staged concerts and served food.

Their childhood home was about 100 yards south of the bar, west of the highway and nearly in the shadow of the Spencer Dam.

The structure was built more than 90 years ago to generate electricity, and it still did when the Nebraska Public Power District needed it to. Utility spokesman Mark Becker described it as a run-of-the-river dam, designed to let water through and never intended for flood control.

But the brothers spoke the day before the dam failed. Kenny Angel knew the Niobrara, and he was concerned with the rising ice and water behind the dam and dike, Scott Angel said.

Early the next morning, two utility employees at the hydroelectric plant knew something was wrong, Becker said. They went to Kenny Angel’s home and told him he needed to leave immediately.

It’s not clear why he didn’t or couldn’t. Scott Angel wasn’t there, he said, so he’ll never really know. But he believes his brother wasn’t given enough notice to get out in time, though Miles, the fire chief, said he was.

The utility has spent the past week trying to determine why the dam failed. And Scott Angel has spent the past week hoping his brother is found.

“Every day that passes decreases our hope and decreases our chances to find him alive.”

#NebraskaStrong photos, videos

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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