Susan Hettich


Written Memory


June 9, 2012


On the evening of June 9th,1972 I was visiting my parents and other out-of-town friends and relatives at my aunt and uncle's home in Hidden Valley just west of Rapid City. Being a second-year nursing student at St. John's McNamara School of Nursing, I'd tried several times to telephone the dorm desk to get permission to extend my curfew to an overnight. I repeatedly had gotten a busy signal. The electricity was out at my uncle's home, so I was unaware of the weather warnings. Near 11 p.m. I left their home with the intent of returning to the dorm. The radio in my car was in the shop. As I drove East on St. Joseph Street, I was not able to turn onto 11th Street due to stalled cars and water that was 24-36" deep, so I kept driving, wondering when and where my little Mercury would stall. All the while it was raining and as I got into higher ground downtown, the water was only 1-2" deep.I parked my car at some friends of friends' house in the 100 block of Main Street (across the street from the police station). I discovered that my friends were bailing water from their basement while listening to their "reel-to-reel" music. They asked me to go to the liquor store and get a six-pack for them, so I did. I vividly remember opening the car door at East Blvd. Liquors (300 block of East Blvd-next to where the Western Wear store is now) and water rushing in to cover the floor of my car! Nearing 12 a.m. I went across the street to the police station (currently the Cornerstone Rescue Mission) to look into getting a ride to the dorm. There were several policemen/firemen standing on the front lawn of the P.D. dressed in yellow trenchcoats, hats, hip-waders and carrying AXES!!! They laughed at me when I mentioned my concern of getting back to the dorm before 12:30 a.m.They said, "No one will be campused tonight, there are people out there dying!!" In my youthful mentality, I thought Rapid City's finest were overreacting to a heavy rainstorm! A man there with a four-wheel drive vehicle was going to check his shop (Blumenthals) downtown to see if it was being flooded and he offered to take me to the dorm. As we drove down Main Street it was totally dark because the electricity had gone off at 12:00 midnight. There was water everywhere, but it wasn't any deeper than 6" anywhere we crossed. Water was edging up to his storefront, but hadn't entered the store, so he was reassured. We reached the dorm at 12:29 a.m. The dorm and hospital were both completely dark except for dim alternately-generated power in the hospital. The doors to the dorm were standing open and sister Margaret Mary (who ALWAYS went to bed at 8 p.m!) was holding a lantern in the entrance. Immediately she informed me that I should get into uniform and report to the hospital to help with the disaster effort. I was shocked, but still continued in disbelief to think that 'good old St. John's never misses a chance to practice their disaster drills!' I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor (no electricity for elevator), rushed to dress in a uniform, grabbed a roll of tape, a scissors and pen, lit a candle and started hurrying down the stairwell. I twisted my ankle recovering from a near fall - ankle felt slightly sprained, but that wasn't important - I ran to the cafeteria. The cafeteria was already being turned into an extended E.R. with several stations. I spent the next 12 hours manning a station with Dr. Authier, an Ophthalmologist, along with other students, doctors and nurses. We had many patients suffering from overexposure to the water. They told us of their experiences - some had lain in the cold waters of Rapid Creek for hours. Others told of being thrown from their car and then the car turning over on them and the force of the current dragging the car on top of them for several blocks. Many had clung to trees and been hit by objects being rushed down the current. We cared for a lot of cut and lacerated patients. Soon we realized the need of evacuating some of our least serious patients to the dorm across the street to make room for the flood victims who'd been injured. At some time during the night we were told that our water was to be considered contaminated so we resorted to bottled water and alcohol wipes. Also midway through the night we were informed that Bennett Clarkson was damaged and they would be bringing patients to us as necessary. We went door-to-door on 11th Street awakening neighbors to help us transfer patients from hospital to dorm. All day the day before we had been in our first day of the two-day seminar "On Death and Dying and The Management of the Dying Patient" with keynote speaker Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and now we were managing the dead and dying patients! Victims entered and exited the E.R.on stretchers all night as we wrung creek water out of the clothing and blankets they were wrapped in. As we took addresses from patients, we were touched by the responses like: "Well our address used to be West Omaha or East St. Louis Street, but the house is two miles upstream," or "I don't know where I live anymore - everything we had is gone," or "These pajamas on my back are all I have." Applying hot water bottles and warm blankets to shockey patients was on going in our effort to warm them up. They trembled all night, crying out, "Get me out of this water!," "I'm drowning!", or just, "Help!" When we finished our 12-hour shifts, we returned to the dorm and found patients in our dorm rooms. They were eventually moved to the auditorium of the dorm and discharged when they could be. Many families were separated and anxiously awaited word to confirm the status of their loved ones - living or dead and/or their whereabouts.

Saturday, June 11th - More bodies were found and the disaster relief begun.

Sunday June 12th - I reported to the Red Cross Headquarters. From there I was sent to Campbell Mortuary to support people as they were ushered back to the morgue garage where they identified friends or family members. This task was not easy for the people because the bodies were severely beaten before their deaths, probably by the debris. The hair was full of brush and grass. The mortuary garage was a long building in which bodies had been arranged in long rows. Each body was covered by a sheet and when the identification was made, the face was covered also and vital information attached (where the body was found, name, clothing worn and in some cases the number of teeth). The count of found bodies is around 200 now. The radio keeps recommending that farmers near Wall and Wasta search for bodies in their field and ditches. One woman was one mile west of Rapid City when the flood struck and her body was found seven miles East of the city. Ten thousand National Guardsmen have been called into our disaster area. Air Force, Red Cross and the entire population of Rapid City are cooperating to clean up the mutilated trailer homes, cars and remains of houses.

June 13th - Today I reported to Red Cross Headquarters and they asked me to stand by until further notice. Headquarters is much more organized today, with nurses and other volunteer help from Denver and Minneapolis. This afternoon Mary Bunney and I drove around and surveyed some of the sights. Canyon Lake is completely dry - only puddles of mud are left there. The beautiful trees of Canyon Lake Park are completely stripped. Rapid Creek is running tamely now, well within its banks - appearing so meek & harmless. Omaha Street is still bestrewn with trailer homes, vehicles and rubbish left from homes that once lined its north side. One of the Red Cross centers (at Central High School Auditorium) needed sandwiches for supper. Mary and I made as many as we could and delivered them. We discovered many homeless lodging there and a foot care clinic set up there to treat any infections and prevent them as much as possible on workmen who have gotten cut and scratched while digging in mud. Tonight about 500 workmen slept in the auditorium, resting up for another busy day. At 7:30 p.m. Mary and I set up an immunization clinic for the hospital for personnel's typhoid vaccinations. I assisted the information office in the hospital in running messages and belongings upstairs to patients from friends or relatives. Visiting hours are being restricted to reduce the spread of infections and to limit congestion of our busy floors. At 9 p.m. I returned to the dorm to wash clothes for the first time in several days. Our water is now available in faucets, bathtubs and stools, but is still considered unsafe for drinking.

June 14th - This morning at 7:45 a.m: Mary and I reported to the Mountain View and Calvary Cemeteries to man the Red Cross Centers here in tents. We have smelling salts available for administration to anyone who faints during the graveside ceremonies. Today we have 15 burials between the two cemeteries. Only immediate family is encouraged to attend these graveside services to relieve congestion in the cemeteries. It's raining off and on today and sometimes it's difficult to hear the services due to the noise of helicopters flying overhead bringing bodies from Keystone that are finally being recovered. Also the streets are noisy with heavy construction hauling rubbish and materials for rebuilding. A mass funeral for flood victims is to be held.Our school will resume next Monday. Sturgis nursing home is evacuating to Fort Meade V.A. until the condition of the Sturgis dam can be determined and secured.

June 15th - The curfew for the city is still in effect 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to prevent extensive looting, although clean-up progress is well underway. Today I reported to the Red Cross at Pine Lawn cemetery and Mary to Mountain View cemetery. I attended four funerals with Mrs. Lidiard/R.N. We were again equipped with Kleenex tissues and smelling salts, but no resuscitation measures were necessary. Our funerals today were quite sad. One was a ten-year-old girl whose father was also dead, indirectly resulting from the flood. Another of our funerals was a double funeral (husband and wife). The son and daughter-in-law of this flood victim couple have lost BOTH parents on BOTH sides of the family, leaving their children without ANY Grandparents! Mrs. Lidiard's wedding was to have been Saturday and all of her relatives were staying with her at her home on Fulton Street. They thought that we were only having a heavy rain and they slept through the flood until 6 a.m. when Mrs. Lidiard's father called from New York to ask if the family was alright!

June 16th - The flood is a week old tonight. The official dead list is reporting a total of 213 persons but that certainly isn't all of them. The missing list is much longer. The search for bodies will be less productive in the coming days and weeks because the greatest part of the city and countryside has been thoroughly searched.

June 17th - The weather was very hot today (80+) and tonight there has been a tornado sighted, again in the Canyon Lake area. More rain and hail are being predicted. However, our streets have been extremely dusty from the silt and rubbish washed out of the creeks and lakes. Most restaurants have opened again for business now that our water is considered safe for drinking. The largest share of the many, many damaged cars have been gathered and pulled to the vacant lot between East St. Joe and East Main Street where the new Federal Building is to be built.

My sympathy to those who lost loved ones in the 1972 flood. Thank you to all who "floated through my life that night." - I would enjoy meeting you under better conditions.



“Susan Hettich,” Flood of 1972, accessed August 17, 2022,