Ray Walz

Description

Written Memory

Date

January 25, 2012

Text

ONE HELLUVA NIGHT
June 09, 1972
Rapid City Flood
I have pondered for months trying to think of what might be the most interesting and impactful experience I had while I was a state trooper.
Many things come to mind, such as the Mother’s Day Flood in Deadwood in 1965, the many years at the State Fair and the A.I.M. Confrontation. But the night of the Rapid City Flood keeps coming to mind, which happened 20 years ago and yet every minute of this terrible experience is engraved in my mind. It happened like this.
I was at home in the Piedmont area on a day off. About 3pm it started to become cloudy with a lot of thunder and storm activity. As Betty and I stood outside to watch the clouds broiling about, they began to turn a deep green color. I have never seen this before nor since then.
We retreated into the house to have our evening meal and listen to the 5:30 news hoping to hear more about the weather. There were flash flood warnings coming across the screen warning campers in campgrounds next to creeks to get to higher ground.
Dalton Lake, 5 miles west of Piedmont, has a campground so I decided to go up there and see if anyone was there. The campground was empty. The creek was running high and had washed out the road which was never rebuilt.
On the way back toward home, state radio called for any patron units in the Piedmont, Blackhawk area. I answered the call and it was 7am the next morning when I got home.
State radio had a report of a mobile home floating in the creek, near the dog track with people in it screaming for help. When I arrived the home had been crushed as it went under the bridge. We did not find any survivors.
REACT was on the scene and were focused on a large pink stucco house about 80 feet from highway 79. There were nine members of REACT and some of their wives there. The house was surrounded by about 4 feet of water which was backing up from the creek. The bridge could not take the volume of the rushing water and was shaking the bridge violently.
The house contained two elderly obese people with heart conditions. There were asked to leave earlier and refused. It is now dark, and around 10pm and we were waiting for a boat coming from Rapid City. After waiting for sometime we got word things were so bad in Rapid that the boat would not be coming.
Our plan now was to go in and bring the people out by rope. The water was around 4 feet deep and slowly rising. We illuminated the area with our vehicle headlights. There was a light pole by the house with a meter on it and I kept watching to see if the water level was rising. It was raining very hard.
Dennis Smith, a REACT member, took the rope and waded out to the house. He said he needed help and I told him I would come to help him. I went to the patrol car to put my billfold under the front seat so it wouldn’t get wet.
When I got in the car I noticed the water was about a foot from the top of the highway. When I opened the door to get out, the water was hitting the bottom of the car door. I looked for the electric meter on the pole and I couldn’t see it.
I estimated it to be a 3 to 4 foot wall of water coming from the hills, a short distance to the west. Everybody went for their vehicles to get to high ground.
Being I was in my vehicle I was one the first to start to leave. As I started to back up, I saw the light colored pickup beside me start to leave and I waited for him to clear. The person driving that pickup, Ron, was never found. I think of him every time I drive by this area.
When I got my vehicle straightened and headed north towards Blackhawk, there were no vehicles ahead of me and the water was 2 feet deep on the highway. I proceeded slowly as not to drown out the motor. I was about 100 feet from the waters edge when a large tree and bridge plank washed up onto the highway. The plank became lodged under my vehicle and I could not move. The motor got wet and stopped.
From my experience in the Deadwood flood, I knew how strong the force of rushing water was. I had to push very hard on my door to get it open and get out. As I got out, another vehicle tried to get by me on the right and stalled beside my vehicle virtually blocking the road.
This driver and myself got on the up side of the tree that was still on the highway. We used the tree to keep the water from sweeping us off the road. From the tree, the waters edge was not far away so we made it to dry ground.
In the next few minutes, I would see eight would be rescuers swept to their deaths. Something I never have forgotten. The helpless feeling I had was over-whelming.
As I stood on high ground looking back to see if the others were coming, I could see vehicles lined up behind my vehicle. There was about 50 feet between our vehicles. The highway raised as you came towards me so the vehicles to the rear were in very deep water and the current was fast.
The people were standing beside their vehicles. I yelled for them to get out now. They waited for a minute or so then one tried to make it to my car. He was swept away as soon as he was clear of his vehicle. He was carrying a flashlight and he was caught in the fence for a time, then I saw the light going down stream.
Next to go were the vehicles with the people clinging onto them. The last vehicle in the line was the first to go. It would move just inches at a time until finally off the road. 1, 2, 3 ,4, 5 of them; the water carried the vehicles and people downstream very quickly. However, the peoples screams for help could be heard above the noise of rushing water and thunder. Soon they were all gone. Only my vehicle remained. I had hopes it would not go in. However, it was not to be; I can still see the amber light flashing as it went out of sight.
Suddenly we head cries for help close by. Looking out in a back pool of water, we saw a white REACT hat in the lightning flashes. One person was on top of his Ford Bronco, which was floating. We got closer to him and he told us he couldn’t swim and about that time the vehicle sank. Myself and two young men ran down stream and formed a human chain and was able to pull him from the water, but his wife drowned.
We still were hearing cries for help but were unable to locate them.
The house with the two people in it was swept away and into the bridge where is was crushed and both people died.
I had a young man take me home and I got Betty out of bed. She asked where had I been all night and where was my car. I told her we had a terrible flood, lost my car and probably 200 people. My guess was not too far off.
Sgt. Ray Walz
South Dakota Highway Patrol Retired

Collection

Citation

“Ray Walz,” Flood of 1972, accessed December 14, 2018, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/590.