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…..
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