In my life as a news reporter, this date, June 13, 1972, was the absolute lowest point.
Massive amounts of rain — 10, 12 or more inches — fell across the Black Hills through the afternoon of Friday, June 9. Rain continued well into perhaps the darkest night in the area’s history. Flash flooding filled every creek and valley. Water poured into Rapid City, through the business district and the neighborhood. It tore homes from foundations, swept away trees and cars and people and then spilled out onto the plains to the east of the city. That was happening in towns and campgrounds throughout the Black Hills.
By sunrise on Saturday morning, June 10, the rain had ended. Low clouds hung gray over the muggy Hills. Steam rose in thick puffs as the day warmed. Rescue crews picked through scattered debris and around fallen trees, searching for survivors and recovering victims. Citizens stood in yards in their neighborhoods, their eyes big and dark as they saw some of what the flooding had done, as they struggled to comprehend how so much destruction was possible in one of South Dakota’s garden spots.
Just after sunrise on Saturday is when I drove into town, having been awakened in the middle of the night and ordered to hit the road west. The overnight editor at the Minneaolis bureau of The Associated Press had received calls about the flooding. The first calls from the scene told the editor it was bad, but the callers had no idea just how terribly bad it was. Certainly there was no way to know that first night that 238 people had been killed in a matter of hours, or that millions and millions of dollars of damage had been. Those facts came to light later, slowly, as the Hills communities responded to the disaster.
I stopped at the Rapid City Journal downtown to get an initial sense of what had taken place, what was still happening and where I might go for factual information. A Journal staffer gave me a quick tour of some of the worst-hit parts of the city. During that drive I saw the first of several bodies, this one still nearly buried under a mound of thick tree limbs and wooden siding torn from a house that rested half a block away.
Back at the Journal, I called the Minneapolis desk and filed a quick report, received instructions on what information to pursue next. I learned that a news editor from the Minneapolis bureau and two reporters from the Chicago bureau were on airplanes headed toward Rapid City, along with two photographers and a photo editor.
All that Saturday and all the next day — Sunday, June 11 — the AP team, like other reporters who had rushed to the scene, chased leads, attended official briefings, talked with witnesses and first responders and local officials and volunteers. Gradually, hour by hour, the enormity of the disaster emerged as bodies were recovered, the missing found, the dead identified.
By Monday afternoon, June 12, there were several, varying reports on the number of victims of the flood at that point. To get the most accurate number possible, our editor determined that each reporter should go to one of the funeral homes and actually count victims. None of my journalism instructors had ever, ever suggested that such an experience would be part of reporting. I did my counting, barely able to breathe, so crushing was the sense of loss and grief and inexplicable tragedy.
I slept fitfully that night in my motel room, waking often, dreaming of what I’d seen that afternoon and all the hours in the days since I’d driven into town. On Tuesday morning, June 13, I came awake suddenly. I struggled to get out of bed and dressed. All I wanted to do was throw my shaving kit and muddy sneakers in my car and drive as fast as I could, out of Rapid City, away from the Black Hills and back to my family.
I stayed three more days, but every single waking moment of those days, I fought the urge to run far away and forget all I had seen and heard.