WOSTER: Solemn days ahead remembering Mickelson plane crash, Rapid City floodFor families and friends, this isn’t a date on the calendar but a permanent emptiness in their lives. It is fashionable to talk of closure when we experience a tragedy, but some things simply don’t close, not firmly or forever.
The two most dramatic and terrible news events I covered in more than 40 years as a reporter are nearing anniversary dates.
For one event, the Rapid City flood, the anniversary will be marked in a very public way involving many South Dakotans, as well as citizens of other states who were residents at the time or who had relatives and friends who were residents. The flood occurred on the weekend of June 9-10, 1972. A dark night of torrential rain and swirling water caused millions of dollars of damage in Rapid City and surrounding communities and took 238 lives, although it was several days before we knew the total number of deaths.
I covered that event as a young reporter for The Associated Press. I reached Rapid City in time to see the sun rise on the wreckage. As I worked amid the destruction, I sometimes struggled to focus on reporting the story so that other people would know what had happened.
This June is the 40th anniversary of the flood. People have been working for months to plan an appropriate observance to look back four decades and to look ahead, as well. I’m sure news outlets plan special sections, features, photos and historical perspectives. That’s a given when a significant anniversary of a major news event approaches.
For the other event, the crash of a state airplane carrying Gov. George Mickelson and seven other South Dakota men, the anniversary surely will be marked in a quieter way by a smaller number of people. The crash of the Mitsubishi MU-2 in an Iowa farmyard occurred on a Monday afternoon, April 19, 1993. We knew relatively quickly how many had died and who they were, and the entire state joined the families of those men in mourning.
I covered that event as a veteran reporter for the Argus Leader. Over the years of reporting on the Legislature, politics and state government, I’d come in contact with each of the men on the state airplane, and I struggled sometimes to focus on reporting the story so that other people would know who these men were and why their lives — their lives, much more than their deaths — mattered.
Janelle Toman was the press secretary to the governor at the time. To her fell the duty of walking into a state Capitol conference room to confirm for a group of reporters, who would confirm it for the rest of the state, the fate of the governor and the others aboard the state airplane. During that first long night and through the next few days, when I began to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, I would remember Janelle and the measured, professional way she handled her duties. I tried to be as professional in my reporting as she had been in her official appearance.
Next April, 2013, will mark the 20th anniversary of the Mickelson crash. Quite likely, that occasion will command public attention and will attract a considerable amount of media coverage as we look back over two decades to remember the men on the plane and the significance of the date in South Dakota history.
But that’s next year. This April is 19 years since the crash. Members of the families, friends of the victims and a relatively small number of other citizens will observe the anniversary this year. For them, this isn’t a date on the calendar but a permanent emptiness in their lives. It is fashionable to talk of closure when we experience a tragedy, but some things simply don’t close, not firmly or forever.
Besides Gov. George Mickelson, the state airplane that April day 19 years ago carried Rolly Dolly, state commissioner of economic development; Angus Anson, general manager of Northern States Power; Roger Hainje, president of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation; David Birkeland, president of First Bank of South Dakota; Ron Reed, state director of energy policy; and state pilots Ron Becker and Dave Hansen.
Take a moment now to remember those men. Come June, take time to remember the 238 who died in the flooding in the Black Hills.