Michael E. Dennis

Description

Written Memory

Date

June 6, 2010

Text

Prelude
I had just graduated from high school and was working for a small construction company. It was Friday night, I had gotten my first paycheck, and was driving around downtown in my 1962 Chevy panel truck, buying tee shirts and window shopping. It had started raining hard before dark and now water was running several inches deep in the streets. I picked up a friend, Jim Klay, who had finished his shift at the Pizza Hut on West Main, where I had worked until recently. We drove around, killing time until later, when I had agreed to give a coworker a ride to Blackhawk from the Alibi Bar near the intersection of West Omaha and Mountain View.

About 10:30, we pulled into the lot of the Alibi and went inside looking for the coworker, his name forgotten, maybe Leroy. Although I wasn’t old enough to be there, I lingered a few minutes waiting for my coworker to finish his beer. People were looking out the back door facing Rapid Creek. Suddenly, water was coming in the back door and the bartender was yelling that the bar was closed and everyone had to leave “now!”

We ran to the truck, jumped in, Leroy in the passenger’s seat, Jim in the back, and pulled out of the parking lot onto Omaha pointing west. Hard rain and slapping wipers limited my visibility, but headlights and streetlights lit the area. We didn’t travel far. The street became tangled with cars leaving the bar, trucks pulling travel trailers out of an adjacent sales lot, and vehicles attempting to turnaround and head back east. I was hemmed in and the water was rising.
Floating

I was confused by what was happening around us. Movement on the street had come to a standstill as traffic stalled in the rising water. I became preoccupied with keeping the engine running and water splashed around my ankles as I pumped the gas pedal. To my left, on the south side of Omaha, the shapes of mobile homes were visible, slowly moving, turning. That area was below street level and the dozens of mobile homes were beginning to float. My engine died and, as I tried to start it, water splashed around my knees. Then everything on the street was moving and we were drifting backward.

It all happened quickly and, although the sequence is not clear, the images remain sharp and strong: intense rain, the deafening sound of rushing water, and lightning every few seconds. By itself, the lightning storm was memorable because it created a strobe effect, reflecting off the rain and water, freezing images my mind tried to sort out before another strobe flash altered the scene.

My anxiety was rising, but I wasn’t panicking. The slow drift of the panel truck halted temporarily on a slight rise, maybe the curbing, on a long curve in the street. A blue, double-cab pickup (maybe an International) was parallel to our right, to the north. A man in the driver’s seat was yelling over to us. I couldn’t hear him over the roar of the water and asked Leroy what he was saying. He turned to me and, shouting to be heard, said, “He says we have to swim for it.” We turned our heads back toward the man, who then slipped into the water and disappeared from view. In the back of our panel truck, Jim asked, “We have to swim?” I shouted “No!” and reached over the seat to grab his shirt. “We’re not going anywhere.” “Yeah,” Jim said, “I can’t swim.” I don’t know when he had done it, but a door to the back of the truck stood open.

I turned back around in my seat. In front of us, illuminated by the headlights, was a man, back to us, arms stretched up against a small travel trailer, trying to keep his balance as the trailer pushed him toward us. Then he was crushed between the trailer and my front end. The trailer moved slightly to the left and he, thankfully still moving, made his way to our right. I don’t recall if Leroy grabbed him, but he made his way along to the side of the truck and Jim helped him into the back. Amazingly, he seemed all right. The force of the water kept pushing the trailer into the truck. The hood slowly began to bend upward and the metal groaned as it buckled. Then a crack appeared at the lower left side of my windshield, it spread, and suddenly, the entire windshield shattered.

Then something happened to me. In that instant of the breaking glass, I believe I moved beyond anything like confusion, panic, or fear, for my emotions became suppressed and I was aware, clearheaded, and simply reacting. I vaulted over the seat into the back of the truck where I crouched scanning the front. Leroy remained in his seat, water to his waist, seemingly passive. The trailer peeled away to the left and we were moving backwards again. I suddenly felt a hard slap from the left and realized the wood panel had hit me. I bent the paneling upward and could see a hole through the side of the truck. A mobile home riding high in the water had grazed our side, slicing the metal from behind the driver’s window to the rear door. We continued moving backwards.
Refuge

We had been picking up speed, but now we stopped, still facing west. We had come to rest against debris that was piling along a line of small trees. Jim, the rescued man, and I exited the back of the truck and onto the trees. Freed from the limited space of the panel truck, the world was more comprehensible. We were on the north side of a billboard that was on the north side of Omaha. The billboard lights were still on. Mobile homes had broken against the three steel I-beam supports and accumulating debris was making a breakwater protecting a small house behind it. Small, closely spaced elm trees ran to the north from the house. A gas station (Frontier) was nearby to the northwest.

As I held onto a tree, several things were happening at once. To my left I could see Jim and the other man moving toward the house. Several other people were in the trees to my right and moving from tree to tree toward me. Leroy was still with the truck. He was climbing out the passenger’s door window, had his arms on the roof, and could not get a handhold. The power line feeding the billboard fell into the water near him. As it whipped and snapped, temporarily live in the water, Leroy screamed. I jumped back onto the roof of the truck, helped Leroy up, and then climbed back to the tree.

At the same time, a VW bug and another car had washed against the gas station and a man was climbing from the submerged VW to the roof of the station. A mobile home slammed sideways again the cars and the station. A second mobile home slammed against it. Then the station gave way. The man jumped from the roof onto the first trailer, then, as the three structures began to gather speed, he jumped to the second trailer, and finally from the trailer toward the trees.

I made my way a short distance along the trees toward the house. An old Ford van was floating, bobbing in the calm water between the billboard and the house. The water was near the eaves of the house and it was an easy climb from the van to the roof.
Watching

In all, maybe nine of us gathered on that roof: Jim, Leroy, and me; the man from the VW; the rescued man and two others who had been helping him with the trailers; and two or maybe more that I can’t remember. We were a miserable bunch in a precarious spot. Water was up to the roof of the house and we were on one of the few standing buildings. We were soaked and shivering involuntarily from hypothermia and, even if we didn’t acknowledge it to ourselves, from shock and fear.

We had a wide and terrible view of the Rapid City “gap” between “M” Hill and Dinosaur Hill. By now the electricity was out, but the scene was sometimes fully illuminated by the lightning and partially lit by a fire to the south (near M.L. Warne Chemical). Smoke from the fire spread over the area and provided an eerie, diffuse light. Across the street to the south, spread among large cottonwoods were small houses and mobile homes. We could see those closest to the street collapse one by one. I cannot forget one house with a flashlight scanning wildly inside until it disappeared in the dark water. Water was rushing through a large steel building to the southeast (Rice Cycle), but the second story stood immovable above the water even as mobile homes slammed into the structure. No buildings were visible among the trees to the east of us.

The mobile homes caused us great anxiety. There were trailer sales lots on both sides of Omaha to the west. Within our view trailers cut through buildings and exploded against trees. We were directly in the path of many of them. After gathering speed, they would either break against the billboard or would be slightly diverted by the wave extending from the breakwater, just missing the southeast corner of the house, which was still exposed to the swift current. As the trailers raced past, the house would shudder, seemingly ready to collapse. As they approached, we would gather at the roof edge, ready to leap toward the billboard. Somehow the house stood.

Sitting on that roof, helpless, wet, and shivering, watching the raging water full of debris and even people floating by, I thought that I should probably pray. However, it wasn’t in my heart and there was nothing to do but shiver and wait in silence.
Shelter

After a time, maybe two hours, the water receded several feet and, desperate for shelter, we broke out an attic window and climbed in. We were thankful to be in a warm, dry space. Someone produced a flashlight. The attic was used as a bedroom and had steep, narrow stairs running down to the kitchen. We sat or lay down, wrapping ourselves in blankets, sheets, and clothing. I recall someone examining the man who had been crushed between my truck and the trailer. He had cuts along the ridges of his pelvis, but they weren’t bleeding much. Borrowing the flashlight, I ventured downstairs, encountering mud on the steps. Water was still up to the countertops and the kitchen was a jumble of debris. A live snake was on top of one pile. Retreating to the attic, I pulled on a dry coat, lay back, and slept for short time.
Daylight

Before dawn, we could see headlights to the east, backed up along Omaha. The water was still several feet deep near the house and the vehicles didn’t proceed. Stopped headlights were also visible to the west of the bridge over Rapid Creek. As it became light, we began leaving, wading out through the running water.

My friend Jim, who suffered from asthma, was having trouble breathing and couldn’t leave with me. He asked me to find him some medicine, so I headed to toward Bennett Clarkson hospital. At times, the swift water was above my knees and the footing was treacherous. I don’t remember much of the walk to the hospital. As I approached the intersection of West Main and Mountain View, I kept to the east, skirting deeper water. The front of the Safeway was gone and debris was piled inside along the back wall of the store. The first floor of the hospital was full of muck. I followed a nurse through the muck to the pharmacy where she tried to locate asthma medicine. It was a difficult task because mud was on every shelf and in narrow pillars on top of every container. She found some pills and I made my way back.

What Jim really needed was an inhaler. Every few steps away from the house we stopped for him to rest. We headed west. When we got to Mountain View, a high school classmate and his girlfriend pulled up in a car. I could not believe they were driving around, but his car was jacked up, riding above the water. I helped Jim into his car and they left. I continued west along Omaha, crossing the partially collapsed bridge by holding onto the submerged railing. On the opposite side, a man in a 50’s-vintage truck gave me a ride to my family’s house on Hall Street.

When I walked in the back door, my mother, Brenda, was greatly relieved. But, I could not stay still. After eating some breakfast, my brothers and I walked to the Meadowbrook area to see what we could do. Later that day, I was standing in our kitchen when my knees started shaking and I dropped to the floor. The magnitude of the experience had finally overwhelmed my fatigued defenses.

I recovered my truck a few days later and it sat in front of our house before it was towed away for salvage.
Reflection

I had never written about the flood until 2005. After the flood, when I began sharing my story with others, usually over beer or during a long ride across South Dakota, the sequence of events, the images, sounds, and even smells were especially clear. The telling sometimes took an hour. As I recreated through words the truly horrible reality of what had happened, my emotions would surface, causing my voice to crack and my eyes to tear. I had not felt these things during the actual experience. Over time, one’s memory fades and details are lost, but I have always been careful in telling my story not to embellish, because the experience was powerful enough to preserve the core of it. I may have remembered some things wrongly and it is difficult to correct these. There are some things I heard afterward, from Leroy for instance, who said someone the next morning had pulled a little girl, alive, out of a tree near the house. I cannot say I know this or other stories to be true.
Research

To write this now (2005), I have not trusted memory alone. Several weeks ago, I spent a week in Rapid City visiting my family. For an hour or two each day I researched at the city library. I also visited the flood display at the Journey Museum, dug out a pre-flood aerial photograph at the city planning office, interviewed several people, and carefully walked over the West Omaha area. Using the aerial photograph as a map, I labeled the address of each house and building within a few hundred feet of 1720 West Omaha, the house which provided us refuge. I also marked the residences of flood victims. The area is now open space, but many cottonwoods visible on the aerial photograph are still present. Two elms survive from the line of small trees that were next to the house.

A picture of the billboard taken Saturday the 10th was printed in the Rapid City Journal (June 12, 1972, p. 5). Another picture showing the house and the billboard was printed in a report (The Black Hills Flood of June 9, 1972, Midwest Research Publishers, p. 166). There are other published photographs and one on the web showing nearby businesses and scenes along Omaha.

I spoke with Sally Liebig, the woman who rented the house. She and her daughter had left about 10:30, traveling to Blackhawk at the urging of her father. When she returned, her house was the only one standing. She said she went inside but salvaged nothing. Sally recalled that her clocks had stopped either five minutes before or after 11:00. That was likely the time my truck came to rest next to the billboard.

Coincidentally, the man in the VW was her former brother-in-law, Don “Hip” Liebig. He was bartending that night at the Alibi. Don told me there was a good crowd at the bar because the stock car races had been rained out. When his VW washed against the gas station, Don was temporarily trapped inside until a Rambler station wagon crashed into the rear window, flooding the interior, but allowing him to open a door and climb onto the station. He spent that night distraught over what might have happened to his girlfriend. She narrowly survived further east on Omaha.

After the flood, I had thought that the M.L. Warne Chemical was the source of the nearby fire. I spoke with Mrs. Warne, whose home had been adjacent to the business. She told me the fire was at the house of a neighbor, Essie Bowman (1707 West Rapid), who was badly burned before she was persuaded to go through the water to safety.

I also spoke with Darrell Willey who had owned the Frontier gas station next to the house. He said that a picket fence ran along the east side of the station property and he parked used cars for sale along the fence. Pushed by the flood against the steel beams of the billboard, these became the foundation of the breakwater protecting the house. He and his brother Don tried to remove some of the cars, but they gave up due to the rising water. Darrell also lost a restored Model T Ford, of which he found only the trunk lid.

The house across the street that disappeared while a flashlight desperately waved inside might have belonged to Louise Sprague, (1713 West Omaha). Three flood victims, Albert and Mary Buchholz, and Edna Schuster, resided near her (1709 and 1731 West Omaha, respectively). At least three other victims, Donald, Doris, and Henry Hausmann (1611 West St. Louis) lived within a block of Sally Liebig. I do not know the man who slipped into the water from the blue pickup. (For some reason, I have always associated that truck with Major G. William Medley of the Salvation Army.) Others doubtless perished near my location. I did not know these people, but I feel connected to them.
Final Thought

The USGS estimated the peak flow that night at 50,000 cubic feet per second. All that water funneled through a one-third-mile wide gap, where we watched from the roof of Sally Liebig’s house. Everything in the water was battered and torn to pieces. Thankfully, the progress of my Chevy panel truck along Omaha had been blocked by the traffic jam, otherwise we may have been swept off the bridge over Rapid Creek, had we made it that far. What luck allowed nine of us to drift into the debris and trees near that billboard? How did that house stand against that volume of water and all those mobile homes? Our survival in such a compromised location was pure chance.

I was eighteen. The thought that I could die never crossed my mind. I did not consider my experience as life affirming or life changing. However, the flood did affect me immediately in several ways: in addition to becoming emotional talking about it, I could not sleep on rainy nights and I would not enter dark or swift water. Sometimes driving at night, as I passed under a bridge or overpass, I would be surprised by the sudden nearness of the object in my headlights and I would begin shaking, my mind seeing again objects looming in the strobe effect of lighting from that night. I occasionally became anxious that, faced with similar life-threatening circumstances, I might lose my head. Now in middle age, I’m beyond that, mostly. My wife, Stephanie, says that my hands still sweat when I get involved in the story.

Michael E. Dennis
medennis1@gmail.com

Collection

Citation

“Michael E. Dennis,” Flood of 1972, accessed September 22, 2021, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/576.