40 years later, Mitchell men relive memories from Rapid City floodIt’s been 40 years since Denny Kiner worked in the aftermath of the deadly 1972 Rapid City flood.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
It’s been 40 years since Denny Kiner worked in the aftermath of the deadly 1972 Rapid City flood.
For Kiner, a Davison County commissioner who spent more than 27 years in the South Dakota National Guard, it was a time of great effort amid tremendous sorrow. The flood killed 238 people, left five missing and injured 3,057, including 118 who had to be hospitalized, according to official records.
For 40 years, Kiner rarely spoke of what he experienced and what he remembered.
But all that changed during a South Dakota Planners Association conference in Lead on Oct. 24, when he listened to a presentation from Merlyn Janet Magner, author of “Come Into the Water: A Survivor’s Story,” her tale of losing her family in the 1972 Rapid City flood. It was part of a presentation on the need to be aware of the dangers of flooding, and how government bodies must consider that risk when making decisions.
“We talked about why you shouldn’t build in flood plains,” Kiner said. “’Cause it’s going to happen sooner or later.”
As he listened to the discussion, all his memories from the 1972 flood surfaced, and the tough facade crumbled. Kiner cried at the memory.
After the conference, he met with Magner and they talked, shared their feelings and hugged.
“She still wonders to this day, ‘Why did I survive?’ ” he said. “It was a very emotional moment.”
Kiner, 64, said when he grew up, most men were told not to share their emotions. Bury it inside and move on.
“I’m not very comfortable sitting here with you right now,” he said. “It’s done, it’s over, it’s history. What’s there to talk about? It is what it is.”
But Kiner admits while he and his team recovered a dead body, or were caught up in high, fast-moving water, or worked for days in a search for more bodies, he mainly remembers his regret that he could not have done more.
“The hopeless feelings I had for being there too late … maybe if I had been down there the night before I could have done something,” he said. “It was a helpless feeling.”
Kiner was a member of the A Battery First Battalion 147th Field Artillery back then and was doing artillery training in the Badlands at Camp Harding.
“We were doing live-fire exercises there the week before,” he said. “It was fate the whole First and Second Battalion were out there.”
More than 2,500 National Guard soldiers, plus support staff, just happened to be in the Black Hills area that weekend. They would be needed.
On Friday, June 9, 1972, Kiner and many of his fellow Guard soldiers were given the weekend off. He drove to Rapid City and arrived around 7 p.m.
He took a room at the Star Motel, located on high ground in the center of the city, and met up with his wife Jean, who came out to spend the weekend with him.
Kiner said he expected a relaxing weekend, but at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, his friend and fellow Guard member Rich Hofer awakened him with a phone call.
“ ‘We got a problem down here. We got a flood going,’ ” Kiner recalled being told. “I told him to go back to bed. I thought he’d been drinking. We were all young back then.”
But Kiner was soon convinced there was a serious flood and asked how he could get to their location.
“He told me, ‘You can’t, the bridges are gone,’ ” he recalled during an interview at the Davison County Courthouse. A wall of water had destroyed bridges across Rapid City.
Houses, businesses and other buildings were also gone, as a rain-swollen Rapid Creek had roared through Rapid City, fueled by downpours Friday night and Saturday morning. Up to 15 inches of rain fell in some areas, rupturing the Canyon Lake Dam. An estimated 1 billion metric tons of rain fell in about six hours.
Water rampaged through Rapid City, tossing and twisting cars, destroying more than 5,000 vehicles, and demolishing more than 1,300 homes. Hundreds more homes were damaged, most in the flood, some by fires sparked by the widespread destruction.
The total damage estimate was $165 million across the Black Hills. The aftermath looked like a war zone, complete with scores of dead bodies.
‘The most horrifying thing’
Hofer, who was a Specialist 4, had turned 23 the week before the flood. He said that Friday night, he and his wife Diane were out with another couple. They were having a few beers and enjoying the night off when the owner told him he was shutting down because of the rising water.
They went back to their motel and went to bed. But in a short while, they were awakened as the flood poured into the area.
Hofer said he put on his uniform and boots and struggled to open the door to their room.
“The water came pouring into our motel room about waist-high,” he said. “So we went to the second balcony. It was kind of … I guess we didn’t know the seriousness of the whole thing.”
Soon, they spotted three or four people standing behind another building. Hofer yelled for them to stay put and not go into the fast-moving water. He also then realized all the cars in the motel parking lot had vanished.
Then he realized the cars had been swept into the end of the lot by the water, “just like if you’d put one on top of the other,” he said.
By then, he said the women had become “pretty hysterical,” and his wife was very upset. For the only time in their 42-year marriage, he slapped her, he said, and she regained her composure.
They huddled in the dark, wondering what they should do as the water raced beneath them. Then, they heard people calling for help while being swept past in the fast-moving water.
“That was probably the most horrifying thing. You couldn’t do anything,” Hofer said. “They just faded away. They just faded away. And you couldn’t do a thing.”
Finally, they were able to walk to higher ground, and they checked into a second motel. But the owner than asked them to give the room up, since they needed the space for evacuees.
“They were in bad shape, and the women helped to clean them up,” Hofer said.
He was spotted by a serviceman from Ellsworth Air Force Base, who told him to join in the rescue efforts. Hofer said off he went into the night, leaving his wife and friends behind to deal with the trauma and danger as best they could.
That is what Kiner and Hofer, and hundreds of other rescue and recovery workers, faced that weekend.
Kiner joined the National Guard on May 4, 1967, and later attended officer candidate school, graduating in 1971. He retired on Dec. 13, 1995, as a lieutenant colonel.
But he actually accepted a reduction in rank in the aftermath of the flood. He had applied for a full-time job with Guard, but was working for Bell Telephone at the time.
On that Saturday, he learned he had been offered a post as an electronic mechanic with the National Guard. He resigned his commission as a second lieutenant and took a full-time post as an E5, the equivalent of a buck sergeant.
Kiner said the morning after the flood, the Guard started to get organized. Much of its equipment was still in the Badlands, since the artillery exercises still had a week to go.
That was called off, and the Guard soldiers were summoned to Camp Rapid, given shots to ward off disease or infection, and told to prepare for long days and demanding assignments.
Kiner said they went to work about 7:30 a.m. Sunday. The water that had done so much damage had mostly subsided.
“Just a fast-running creek by that time,” he said.
One of his men spotted something that seemed out of place when he looked through a basement window.
“He said, ‘Lieutenant, is that a baseball bat?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
It was the body of a woman.
“We found out later she came from 10 miles upstream,” Kiner said. “That’s the only one I was involved in finding right there.”
He learned this fall that he was assigned to an area near where Magner’s mother, father and brother were swept away and killed in the flood.
“It was in the same area we started rescue and recovery after the fact,” Kiner said.
For several virtually sleepless days, he worked 12- to 14-hour shifts, looking for bodies, shoveling mud out of homes, and doing whatever chore he was assigned.
“Dark to dark,” Kiner said. “Trying to clean as much as we could.”
Memories of terror
Several Mitchell men took part in the efforts to help pull Rapid City and the Black Hills out of the flood’s damage, including Bob Usher, Chuck Storm Sr., Lloyd Claussen and also Maylon Schuh, who received the Army Commendation Medal with a V Device for valor.
Capt. Darrell Hanson and Guardsman Lance Carter, both of Mitchell, wrote down what happened in the next several days. Their accounts of the recovery work were printed in The Daily Republic on July 11, 1972, a month after the flood.
Kiner kept a copy of the story but had not looked at it for 40 years.
After talking with Manger, he dug it out.
“How does one describe apprehension, fear and disbelief?” Carter wrote. “You’re told you may become sick, or you may cry, or you may even ask to leave, but this is normal and you’re certainly not to be classified as a coward.”
Hofer, who served seven years in the National Guard, said they spent the first three of four days searching through homes. He admits it was difficult work.
“It was kind of sickening,” he said.
Kiner said what sticks with him now is how widespread the damage was, “the just total destruction and devastation of what a body of water can do.”
Kiner almost found that out in the worst possible way.
At about 2 p.m. Sunday, June 11, 1972, he was working in Black Hawk Canyon in the Box Elder area a few miles east of Rapid City.
Kiner was crossing a swollen Black Hawk Creek when he went down into the water.
“It knocked me right down and down I went,” he said. “I still remember how cold that water was. And that was a day after the fact. So what those poor people went through as they were being washed down the stream, the agony and helpless feeling they would have had …”
“If a rope hadn’t been tied to his waist, God knows what would have happened,” Hanson wrote.
“Good thing we had a rope on him, or he would have went down quite a ways,” Hofer said. “The water was only 3 feet deep, but it was moving, and it was strong.”
The flood didn’t just kill people living in its path. Three National Guardsmen, three firefighters, seven airmen from Ellsworth Air Force Base, a police reserve officer and other rescuers also died.
But Kiner said while the tragedies seemed too many to count, he also remembers people working together.
“The thing that impressed me about the whole situation was how strong and good people could be when they had to be,” he said.
No one worried about food or sleep — they did what was needed,” he said.
The 40th anniversary of the flood was observed in Rapid City in June. Kiner didn’t attend any of the ceremonies.
“I thought about going out there. There were people who lost a lot out there,” he said. “I didn’t lose a lot out there. I probably gained a good insight about how precious life is.”
That’s something he thinks of more today as he looks back on that tragic series of days. Kiner and his wife Jean, who was born on Veterans Day, have three children: Tina, Dusty and Denny.
Hofer said he learned to deal with that he experienced and saw. The Guard members weren’t offered counseling. It just wasn’t done back then, but he has told his story to family and friends over the years.
“We’ve always talked about those things,” he said. “And I’ve shared them with other people. You look back, you don’t realize all the people that are impacted. You just try to go on with your life and do the best you can.”