As hurricane-force gusts toppled trees, whipped the air into whiteout conditions, and brought temperatures down to 15 degrees, most businesses across Rapid City took drastic action on Oct. 4.
The Target store closed early and allowed 20 employees to stay the night in the building. Triple Crown Hospitality, which owns three hotels, not only let its employees sleep over, it extended the offer to their family members.
But nine employees at Sam's Club on Eglin Street, including a pregnant 19-year-old, were not so lucky.
This week, the Journal spoke with two Sam's Club employees who said workers were forced outside into the recording-breaking blizzard.
Unable to drive through snow-choked streets, and dressed only in fall clothing, the employees say they spent an hour trudging to a nearby hotel.
When called for comment, the Eglin Street Sam's Club referred the Journal to the store's corporate office in Arkansas; the chain is owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Carrie Moore, a spokeswoman for the company, said in a statement on Friday that Sam's Club guides its managers to take every precaution to ensure the safety of its employees.
She said that the manager on duty had elected to send workers to a nearby hotel during the blizzard because he was concerned that the store would lose power.
"In hindsight, we recognize that different decisions could have been made to maximize associate safety," she wrote. "We have carefully reviewed our Disaster Response procedures with our Rapid City team to ensure incidents like these do not occur in the future.”
The falling snow
Ronny Miller, 19, who has worked at Sam's Club since May and is eight months pregnant, hopes that no employee has to experience what she did on Oct. 4.
That Friday, Miller arrived at 1 p.m. for her shift. As the winds howled outside and snow began to fall, the store stood empty of customers.
"We were all standing around doing nothing," Miller said.
She said the manager on duty told the employees that he had called the company's corporate office repeatedly to see if the store could close early.
At about 6:30 p.m., the manager told the workers that corporate officials had finally given permission to close.
But by that point, driving home had become a near impossibility for the employees. A 'no travel' advisory was in effect.
Miller said her car was buried in three feet of drifting snow.
"And we were all just wondering, 'how are we going to get home?'" she said. "I tried calling all my cousins, because they've got big ole man trucks that they use. They got stuck just getting out of their driveways."
Around 7:30 p.m., the parents of one of Miller's co-workers picked up the employee and two other co-workers in a truck, Miller said.
But that still left Sam's Club with six stranded employees, Miller said.
At about 8 p.m., the on-duty manager offered a solution: the company would pay for the employees to stay the night at the AmericInn Lodge & Suites about half a mile away. But the manager, Miller said, told the employees they would have to walk to the hotel.
"We were all not OK with that," Miller said. "We were like, 'the snow is up to our butts. This is not OK.' We made that very, very clear."
Miller said the manager responded that corporate had told him that the employees had to vacate the building.
"We were like, 'why can't we just stay in the store?'" Miller said. "'We have all the food we need. We have TVs. We have pull-out beds on the walls that we could just lay on for the night. I mean, c'mon?'"
Miller said the manager told them that he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do.
The six employees and the manager exited the store shortly after 8 p.m. Miller said the wind and snow were blinding.
Miller was dressed in a sweater and a long-sleeved shirt. She had boots and a jacket inside her car, but her car was so deeply buried, she couldn't even open the doors to retrieve them.
One of her female co-workers, fearing for Miller and her unborn baby, lent her own jacket to her.
"We were still frickin' frozen," Miller said. "Everybody else, they hadn't dressed properly either."
The employees had asked the manager whether they could borrow warm-weather gear from the store. Miller said he told them they would have to buy anything they borrowed.
As the workers walked through the parking lot towards the AmericInn, Miller said the manager attempted to drive his own car out the back exit. The employees would later learn that his vehicle became stuck in the snow.
Miller and her five co-workers were nearing the gate when one of them, 60-year-old Anita Comeau, stopped in her tracks.
Comeau was wary of the trek. She not only has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, but she was already soaking wet.
Earlier that evening, around 6 p.m., Comeau had attempted to drive home but her car got stuck in the parking lot. When she tried to return to the store, she found that a power outage had forced its automatic doors shut.
She said she circled Sam's Club, rapping on doors and windows to attract her co-workers' attention. She spent 30 minutes falling and slipping in heavy snow before they saw her.
"My coat was wet," she said. "My socks were soaked. Everything was wet."
As the group began walking together, Comeau got back inside her 1998 Bonneville and firmly shut the door.
Her co-workers urged her to come with them – but she wouldn't budge.
"I knew I would freeze and die trying to go up that hill," she said.
One of the workers, a man named Mike, lingered behind and again encouraged Comeau to come with them, she said.
The other four trudged onward. The neon-red letters of the AmericInn sign, "$49.99 a night," glowed in the distance.
Miller and two female co-workers huddled against each other. The fourth co-worker, a lean, elderly man named Steve, walked in front, Miller said.
One of Miller's co-workers, Jessica, had weak ankles and kept falling. The group stopped three or four times, cowering behind vehicles when the wind roared. Miller cursed and screamed.
"It was practically blowing the jackets off of us," Miller said. "And we were just soaked. The snow was up to our knees and we kept falling."
After 9 p.m., following an hour of walking, the group arrived at the hotel; exhausted, soaked and frozen. Miller would later remove snowballs from her purse.
The hotel was packed with employees from other businesses. Mike, the co-worker who lingered with Comeau, would arrive later, as did the manager.
Despite the trials of the five employees, Comeau faced an even worse night.
She called 911 but was told that emergency responders couldn't reach her. They advised her to turn her car heater on every 15 minutes.
She did so; she took off her wet socks and tried to dry them.
But at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Comeau's car battery died. Shortly after, her phone battery died too.
Comeau tried to sleep, but shivered through the early hours. The chill was aggravated by deep pain in her joints and muscles. She hadn't taken her evening medication.
At around 8 a.m., the Friday manager rapped on Comeau's car window. The snow had stopped falling and winds were dying down.
The manager let Comeau into Sam's Club, where she was able to change into dry clothes, call her family and get a meal, Comeau said.
The manager lent her some snow shoes from the store and she tried to walk to the AmericInn, but she kept falling over. Comeau said she gave up and returned to her car.
Later that day, emergency responders would arrive and take her to Comfort Suites on North Elk Vale Road.
She and other stranded workers and travelers remained there until Monday, when plows finally unclogged Rapid City's snow-packed streets.
In the aftermath of the Oct. 4 blizzard, both Comeau and Miller remain bitter about their treatment by Sam's Club, but they apportion blame differently.
Comeau holds the corporation at fault. Like other businesses in Rapid City, she said management should have either let its employees go home before the weather deteriorated or, at the very least, let them stay overnight in the store.
"Nobody should be endangered by any employer," she said. "As soon as they give out a no-travel warning, they should make sure their employees are home safe or are taken care of."
Miller said her temptation was to blame the corporation, but she believed that it was the manager on duty, who was ultimately at fault.
She said she believes that he pretended that more of his instructions came from Sam's Club's corporate office than actually did.
"What basically happened is he just wanted to go home," she said. "But if we wanted to stay in the store he'd have to stay with us, because he's the manager."
The Journal is not naming the Friday on-duty manager because he could not be reached. The newspaper asked Sam's Club if it would allow a reporter to speak with the manager, but an official said the Friday manager was no longer with the company.
Asked whether he had been fired, the company's corporate office said that its policy is not to discuss the employment history of individuals.
Whether he was fired or not, Miller said she saw an even better long-term solution for Sam's Club.
"How about you put a darn protocol in place when you have a big ol' blizzard?" she said. "Because they had nothing set up."