Remembering the Rapid City 1972 flood

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"I didn't anticipate how serious the flood would eventually be. We broadcasted the warning through local radio stations, but it wasn't more than 30 minutes later when the radio stations lost power and we were left without any means to warn our people."

That stark realization hit Donald Barnett, then mayor of Rapid City, moments after he received the high water warning in the evening on June 9, 1972.

The flood, caused by torrential rains in the Black Hills, swept through Rapid City and other local communities from June 9 to the early morning hours of June 10. Heavy rains, an estimated seven inches of water within two hours, began falling in the hills at 7 p.m.
The non-stop heavy rainfall turned small creeks into major rivers that swept toward Rapid City.

As the water levels climbed higher and higher, warnings were given to Rapid City residents. At the same, nine miles east of Rapid City, the Ellsworth disaster team was gathering at the 28th Bomb Wing Command Post to determine how best to respond and the types of actions to take.

It was nearly 11 p.m. when flood waters broke through Canyon Lake Dam on the edge of Rapid City and water swept through the community. The Ellsworth rescue effort, controlled and coordinated from the Command Post, began immediately.

Ellsworth commanders responded quickly to requests from civil authorities and busloads of Ellsworth Airmen were dispatched to Rapid City to aid local authorities with rescue and recovery operations. Trained Airmen worked through deep water and struggled against strong currents to reach people who had fallen victim to the violent flood. Throughout the long night and into the early morning, Airmen - divided into 20 separate teams - rescued and transported countless injured people to local hospitals.

Nearly 500 Ellsworth Airmen worked with local authorities on that Saturday, a number that would increase to 1,143 on June 11 and 950 on June 12. Massive amounts of heavy equipment, medical supplies, food and water were dispersed to stricken areas.

"During the early hours of the flood, nine Airmen flagged me down on Canyon Lake Drive and told me they had been sent to Rapid City from Ellsworth to help in any way possible," said Barnett, who lauded the base for its prompt response and vital support.

Master Sgt. Eric Grim, South Dakota Air and Space Museum director, said that at the same time the Rapid City rescue operations were going on, Ellsworth Airmen were dispatched to Box Elder with boats to pick up stranded survivors in that area. A total of 80 personnel and 23 vehicles provided assistance to the small community.

The leaders staffing the 28th BW Command Post continued working around-the-clock to ensure vehicles, supplies, and personnel were precisely dispatched to aid the surrounding community.

Grim said that the UH-IF helicopters assigned to the 28th BW Organizational Maintenance Squadron, flew more than 60 hours, providing aid and support resulting in the rescue of 14 stranded victims. Additionally, they conducted search parties to remote areas affected by flood, transported approximately 200 passengers, and almost three tons of cargo that mainly consisted of medical supplies and food.

In addition to providing equipment, supplies and support, Ellsworth's Family Services staff set up a relief station in the Base Community Center, offering free clothing, food and shelter to disaster victims. Airmen also opened their doors and provided shelter for displaced residents. Base dining facilities began working nonstop to provide food to Airmen working to provide relief as well as to victims.

Sixteen physicians, five dentists and 12 nurses from the base worked throughout the weekend to provide care to injured victims on base and from surrounding communities. The Ellsworth hospital set up inoculation centers and provided more than 800 typhoid and tetanus shots to flood victims.

"Ellsworth Airmen participated heroically in life-saving actions, to include putting out the warning for hundreds of citizens to evacuate from their homes," Barnett said. "There actions saved numerous lives and potential injuries to hundreds of Rapid City citizens. These were men and women who were courageous and well disciplined. They saved many lives, and, unfortunately, some of them perished during our rescue efforts."

By the end of the disaster, 13 Airmen and their families lost their lives and numerous others were severely injured.

Staff Sgt. Marvin Pepper, Tech. Sgt. Blake Thornton and Staff Sgt. William Rough were among those who lost their lives. While engaged in an emergency rescue in Rapid City at the height of the flood, were swept away in the raging waters and drowned. Thornton and Pepper would forever be remembered for their efforts. Base officials renamed the 28th Maintenance Squadron Non-Destructive Inspection laboratory on base as the Thornton-Pepper NDI Laboratory during a ribbon cutting ceremony on June 1973.

"We were finding dozens of deceased every day - over 200 bodies throughout the summer," said Barnett. "Several weeks after our rescue efforts were completed, we confirmed 238 dead."

Grim said that looking back, that was a terrible and unfortunate event in our history. "But, the manner in which the communities in the Black Hills came together to care for one another was simply amazing," he said.

The Black Hills Flood Committee will host a remembrance and renewal event June 9, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Auditorium in the Rushmore Plaza, to honor the lives lost during the flood and celebrate the progress that Ellsworth and local communities have achieved since that tragic night 40 years ago.