RAPID CITY, SD (KELO) — People in the Black Hills are pausing to reflect upon a tragedy that seems unimaginable to many of us today. On June 9th, 1972, a wall of water churned through the Rapid City area, killing 238 people in what remains the worst natural disaster in South Dakota history.
On this day, 50 years ago, a thunderstorm stalled over the Black Hills, south of Rapid City. The heavy rain soon overwhelmed rivers and streams.
“When the water reached Keystone, Dark Canyon and Rapid City, Rapid Creek had become a raging river,” KELOLAND reporter Steve Hemmingsen said in 1972.
Rapid City’s Canyon Lake Dam couldn’t hold back the rush of water; the uncontrollable current washed away homes, cars and people.
“About a 10-foot wall of water and I was trying to help somebody else get out, get a lift onto a wrecker, swept me down the creek and the wife and both kids stayed in the pickup,” a survivor said in a 1982 interview with KELOLAND News.
“We saw him go into the water and just hope and prayed he didn’t drown,” another survivor said in a 1982 interview.
In the days that followed, people did what they could to help their neighbors who lost everything in the flood.
“Neighborhood cleanup crews break the news to friends of loved ones found in the rubble. Those whose homes are spared are opening their doors to the less-fortunate and the death toll mounts,” KELOLAND reporter Richard Muller said in 1972.
The dead included Millie Dieter’s husband and 9-year-old daughter Patricia.
“I think I went through that flood for months and the thing I will always remember, I would get to that point is when Patricia was going to get washed-out of my grasp, and I would just clamp tight, each time,” Millie Dieter said in 1982
Memories of the 1972 flood fade with each passing year. But the grainy film images from 50 years ago will ensure that the emotional impact from all this devastation will never recede.
There’s been a kind of collective post-traumatic stress connected with the 1972 flood. Even decades later, people who lived through the flood said they often began feeling uneasy whenever storm clouds threatened overhead.