Rebecca Gottschalk

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In June, 1972, after graduating from South Dakota State University in Brookings, my three female college friends and I decided to go on a trip before our jobs started. We headed to the Black Hills in my car with only sleeping bags. I had relatives in the Rapid City area and also friends after working a summer during college years at the Powder House Lodge near Keystone.

When we got to Rapid City on June 9, we had to spend a half day there getting the car ignition fixed. But then we headed to Keystone where we spent the afternoon visiting some friends and hanging out in the town. We had decided earlier to stay at a campground. We had only sleeping bags, no tent. It was raining hard as I was talking to my Mom on a pay phone by the Conoco gas station on the main street. Because mud was sliding down the hill across the street, I jokingly said, “We will be home sometime….if we don’t drown out here because it’s raining so hard.”

We then drove east on Hwy 40 to the Harney Peak Campground east of Keystone that was on the Battle Creek side with an old schoolhouse on the property. We tried to spread out in a picnic shelter but, because it was raining so hard, the owners said we could take our sleeping bags and sleep in their camper. It was usually on a pickup but was being stored on the ground next to their trailer house by the stream. It was dark and raining hard.

All we could hear in the camper was the rain beating down. We had just gotten into the sleeping bags when the campground owner knocked and said we should get out because the creek was rapidly rising. We did and jumped in the car to start driving out of the campground. (It was a good thing we had gotten the ignition problem repaired earlier that day!)

When we got to the approach going out of the campground, the water was rapidly rising and we couldn’t get the car up out of the mud. We were seeing trash cans and debris floating away. The other girls got out into the water and pushed the car up onto the road as I spun the wheels. We saw other campers trying to get out of the campground in their cars. We went down to help push a Georgia man & his family out as they left their campers. As we got them up onto the road, we saw the camper topper we had been in go downstream and then the trailer home of the campground owners floated away in the quickly flooding area.

Those of us in cars on the hill soon realized that we were surrounded by flood waters and could go no further. In the dark, we had no idea what was beyond us or how much the water might continue to rise. We four girls sat in the car in our wet clothes, turning it on periodically and opening the door to check the water level. By then, the radio had gone to emergency services transmission. In the middle of the night when we heard our names listed as missing, we put our driver’s licenses in our jean’s pockets in case we were swept away. It continued to be a fearful night, but so far we were alive.

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When daylight came along with a cloudy hazy day, we saw the flood waters with debris floating by. I remember feeling so nauseated because I was afraid I would see someone I knew from Keystone float by along with the cars and debris.

During that day, the father/grandfather of the Georgia camping group, walked among the dozen or so of us on the highway rise carrying a gun as he drank from a bottle of liquor. He verbally threatened that he would do whatever he needed to so his family would have food and be the first in line if we were rescued.

Later in the day, a National Guard helicopter hovered over and asked if we needed anything. They could not rescue us at the time since we were all right and they needed to help others. They did bring back heart medication for the Georgia man.

Also later that day, we saw people on the other side of the raging flood waters. We decided to yell across spelling one of our names (the easiest one) with her mother’s phone number and asked them to call to tell her we were alive and all right. We knew she would then call the other parents.

That night, as we tried to sleep off and on in the car, we locked the doors because of the Georgia man’s threats.

On the third day, the National Guard came through the waters with a very high truck. They had been searching for survivors and bodies east of Keystone. We said we needed to contact our parents. They said we could return to Keystone with them where there was a National Guard rescue center that had been established. We left the car and our belongings and rode in the back of the truck. The others in the group chose to stay with their cars in hopes of being able to leave when the water receded.

As we rode in the truck going in and out of the water down the washed out highway, we saw the destruction of east Keystone, old Keystone and the main area. We were immediately given tetanus and typhoid shots, along with something to eat. Though because we were so emotionally distressed, we weren’t very hungry. We wanted to try to reach our parents but there were, of course, no phone connections in the Keystone area.

Fortunately, a highway patrolman said he could take us into his home about 20 miles away on the eastern side of Rapid City where they had phone service. We were exhausted and thankful for his help. He, his wife, and the neighbors let us each go to a home and call our parents. We were so happy to be able to connect with them and they were so thankful we were alive.

Later that day, we went to the Rapid City High School to help with the rescue efforts. I remember sitting with a man who was trying to find dry clothing and a pair of shoes. He was so distraught because he didn’t know if his wife and son made it through the flood or if they were swept away. We both cried when they walked in the door!

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I don’t remember the highway patrolman’s name, but wish I could thank him again. We did keep in touch with the owners of the campground for a while. They saved our lives since we would not have heard or seen the Battle Creek rising outside the camper.

Eleven people died in the Keystone area, all campers caught in sites along creeks. Seventy structures were damaged or lost. I will always remember and often revisit the memories of that experience. The scenes of devastation, the bodies in a row by makeshift morgues, the sadness in the eyes of those who lost one or more of the 238 lost friends and family, are not things you forget. I know I am lucky to be one of the survivors. We four girls went on to careers in helping professions.

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Citation

“Rebecca Gottschalk,” Flood of 1972, accessed September 28, 2022, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/638.