The Rapid City flood: There were thousands of stories to be told

cars that were swept downstream during the flood. AT ISSUE: It was a Friday night, June 9, 1972. The Rapid City Flood was the fifth worst flood in American history. Two hundred and thirty-eight people lost their lives. Another 3,000 were injured. Many were saved. And the lives of everyone involved were changed for ever. Thousands of stories came out of that flood. Here’s mine.

A FEW WEEKS AGO I mentioned the folks in Rapid City were preparing an observance of what happened to their city 40 years ago, the 1972 flood. I have to admit that tragedy a half a life ago had more or less slipped from my memory. Perhaps, like so many I unconsciously did not want to recall Rapid’s darkest night–with all that devastation and death.

That was until the latest issue of the South Dakota Magazine came off the press. As I read “Rapid’s Darkest Night,” those dreadful memories of June 9 and 10 rushed to that part of the remembrance system I thought I had, on purpose, forgotten.

No. I wasn’t there the night the record-heavy rains fell. But let me tell you my story, my involvement with the Rapid City flood.

IT WAS THE NEXT morning, Saturday, and I was at work in the newsroom of the Public Opinion helping to put out the Saturday edition when the Associated Press wire started to go berserk. At first there was just a brief story and then shock hit the news staff. What eventually became a long list of those who didn’t survive started to print.

That afternoon my wife took the kids to the park. I went back to the newsroom to check the wire as more names on the death list continued to come in. My cousin, Stan Bice, his wife, Faye, and their two sons lived west of the fish hatchery, I believe it was called the Breaburn Addition to the city, on the edge of Rapid Creek, the path of all the destruction. They were formerly from Oacoma and Chamberlain.

In between prayers for their safety I asked myself, “Will they be on that list as the wire continued to pour out the terrifying news from out west?”

About mid-afternoon the publisher was back in the newsroom with me. “You would really like to be out there wouldn’t you?” he asked. He didn’t have to ask the second time.

THE PLANE LEFT the Watertown airport about 3:30. There was little time to get some money, pack a bag and kiss my wife and kids goodbye.

The plane was full except for a lone empty seat. The rest were news people from out east. When we landed in Pierre the announcement was made that if you didn’t have transportation waiting you would be quarantined at the Rapid City terminal. The cry was deafening.

Stepping off the airplane I was greeted by an old college buddy who happened to work for the state. He was waiting for some feds and since they weren’t on board I could have their room at the Holiday Inn.

Five A.M. Sunday arrived awfully fast. A car barreled me to Camp Rapid, the National Guard headquarters. To my surprise, a Jeep and driver were assigned to me from one of the two Guard units from Watertown that happened to be there on their annual two-week training period.

FIRST STOP WAS my cousin’s house. But all that was left was the basement and that was cleaned out by the rushing water. Where was their house? Were they still alive? We then explored along Jackson Boulevard and Omaha Street. Chaos everywhere.

In the middle of the boulevard sat a house that sailed down from somewhere. Just as I got out of the Jeep to take a picture a car drove up. In it was a very elderly couple. They had found their home. Tears later we journeyed towards Omaha Street. There in front of us was a pile of cars. There must have been at least a dozen in that heap, a photo that went worldwide. They were just a few of the 5,000 cars and trucks swept away by the water. At the next stop seven or eight men were lifting a section of a wall, and beneath were the first three bodies I encountered on the assignment.

Similar scenes played over and over, but it was time to head back to what had been the home of my cousin and his family. Shortly after we arrived, they drove up in their pickup. More tears. They about melted when they spotted me. They had had quite a Friday night.

THEIR STORY: They left their house as water started to slip under the front door. Up a steep approach to Highway 44–and safety. Another pickup with a small boat came down the hill. Between that driver and Stan, they unloaded the boat and a long length of rope. One end of the rope went around a guard post and the other end was secured to the boat. It was then pulled up-stream and let go. It made a wide arc picking up survivors as they came down stream.

By then it was time to get back to the airport. Upon entering the Rapid City terminal I soon discovered the seats were full–full of very disgruntled, eastern newsmen who flew with me the day before on our way to Rapid.

BEFORE CLOSING I must comment about those National Guard members. Their lives were nothing but short of heroic that Darkest Night. In fact, two of them from northeast South Dakota gave their lives saving others. They were Lt. Engelstad of Milbank and M/Sgt Corbin of Webster.

In retrospect my story really isn¹t mine. It¹s theirs, those 238 people who didn¹t survive Rapid¹s Darkest Night…..


  1. Sham-i-am says:

    My father, now a retired mortician from the Northern Hills, had gone down to Rapid to help the other funeral directors in their efforts to console families of lost loved ones.  He tells me that not every victim was found still to this day….how sad to be unable to put a loved one to rest in a chosen location.  May God Bless all the families and victims of this horrific tragedy.   

  2. Mera White says:

    I was 14 and living in Washington State when we opened the Saturday morning paper to see the AP photos of a scoured Rapid City.  My Dad immediately began making calls to South Dakota.  His father, sister, brother, and their families all lived “out in the Hills.”  The phone lines were all down, it was the days before cell phones and even those brothers and sisters who lived on east side of the state had gotten no messages yet.

    Mom and Dad had to leave on an important all day errand that would take them away from the phone.  Just before leaving Dad laid a pen and paper next to the phone, turned to me and said, “If a call comes in about South Dakota, take good notes.”
     My father is a journalist–a former copy editor at the Buffalo (New York) Courier Express (now a part of the New York Times), I was aghast–I knew that I my idea of “good notes” and his were two totally different things.  I didn’t even know how to spell my cousins last names!  I remember being relieved to find those correctly spelled names listed in Dad’s address book which was still open on the desk.

    When the call finally came it was easy enough.  Though there had been some close calls and the men from Star Ranch had formed a linked arm chain to help my cousin across a swollen stream after checking on Grandpa, there was no loss of life and injuries were minor.  Even family property damage was minor compared to the disaster all round them.  

    At the tender age of 14 I suddenly realized that there were important reasons to learn to “take good notes” and I understood for the first time how to prepare for the call by doing the research. 

  3. Wayne Granum says:

    I remember the flood.  I was the other fireman who was with Lt. Henry Tank & firemen George Summers the evening of the flood.  I survived by getting into a house, stripping og my fire gear, smashing out a window over a kitchen sink & reaching up to the roof to pull myself to safety. Than, minutes later the house broke free, floated down to the bridge where it was torn apart leaving me on a small piece of roof which drifted across the lake and got caught in some trees.  There I jumped into the tree and clung only a few moments when the dam broke and drainedthe lake.  I than cliimbed down and ran to the main street to safty.  Jackson  blvd?  Wayne Granum,  Ephrata, Wa.    [email protected]

  4. WXRGina says:

    This is an excellent report, Mr. Garnos.

  5. Wayne Granum says:

    I remember the flood on June 9th, 1972.  I was a fireman in tyhe Rapid City Fire Dept. stationed at the westside fire stationed with Lt, Henry Tank & George (Ike) Summers.  We were first called out out to the Canyon Lake spillway to assist in removing paddle boats stuck, and were blocking the water flow.  We than received a call to go to the homes along Rapid Creek & Chapel Ln and warn all people living in that area of a wall of water approaching.  Lt. Tank, Fireman Summers, and I split up taking different sides of streets to warn the people.  It wasn’t long until Lt Tank stated, “Lets get out of here as the waters were knee deep and rising.  Wading towards the bridge I realize the water was now above my knees.  I tried a door on a house, it was open.  Removing my fire gear I climbed up on a kitchen sink and with my fists smashed out the window and tore out the glass.  Twice I fell into the swirling waters attempting to reach the roof of the house I was in.  Each time I was able to climb back into the window.  Than a miracle happened,  an attached garage broke free from the house.  I jumped from the window to the roof of the garage, than to the roof of the house.  The garage floated away.  Within a few minutes the house also broke loose and started floating towards the bridge over Rapid Creek.  As the house approahed the bridge I could see a huge whirl pool where a variety of things disappeared and reappeared on the other side as rubble.  The house I was riding caught, crashed into the guard rail of the bridge??  and the bottom  part of the house disintegrated, the roof, what was left, floated out into Canyon Lake which I rode across the lake.  On the other side of the lake the roof caught on a tree.  I than jumped into the tree and hung on.  I could hear people screaming for help.  I saw some one swimming in the lake.  In only a few minutes the dam burst and it was like draining a bath tub as the lake level dropped many feet in only a few moments and I climbed down the tree and ran for Jackson Blvd. where I met other fireman.  Because I had numerous cuts on my hands I was taken to an aid station where I received numerous stitches.  Than taken home for some clothes as all I was wearing was my pants.  My shirt I’d used the wrap around my hands to stop the bleeding.  I than reported back to duty as I didn’t know what had happened to Lt, Tank or Fireman Summers.  I than learned that Capt. George Carter was also missing.  It was a horrible night.  Wayne Granum.