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The names of the 238 victims of the Black Hills flood flashed on the screen as the haunting notes of "Amazing Grace" filled the Fine Arts Theatre at the start of Sunday's memorial service. 

The hundreds of people in the darkened auditorium at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center stood together, paying tribute to those lives lost 40 years ago during the horrific event that shaped the area.

Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker told the audience how easily people forget and how important it is to love one another until tragedy strikes. 

“That is why our city no longer allows people to sleep in the floodway,” Kooiker said. 

Revs. Ron and LaVonne Masters shared with the audience the tragedy that hit their own family as they tried to escape the flood on June 9, 1972. The couple lost their three sons and almost their own lives that night. 

The muddy waters overran their vehicle, hanging it up on a clump of cottonwood trees by Jackson Boulevard. 

"I felt like I was going to die," LaVonne Masters said. "I was very surprised because I was very young." 

But, Ron Masters was able to climb through a window and on top of the car in the pitch black. He pulled his wife and one of his daughters into the nearby trees where they spent the night hanging on for their lives. 

In the morning, they found, to their amazement, that their second daughter survived the night in the family's vehicle. Two of her brothers died beside her and the youngest son was the 238th victim found in the days that followed the flood.

"It just felt like the long night, possibly was going to be over," said LaVonne, who was pulled to safety with her family by the South Dakota National Guard. 

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Rev. Kent Millard spoke on the recovery of the community after the flood. In the days that followed the event, he was appointed assistant pastor at Canyon Lake United Methodist Church, which lost 10 members in the flood. 

Now a pastor in Indiana, Millard recalled how the flood's aftermath broke down barriers of race and religion in the community. Anyone in need was helped, he said. 

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"It didn’t matter. It was a great equalizer," Millard said. "We thank God for the good that comes out of tragedy."

Msgr. William O’Connell, a retired priest with the Rapid City Diocese, spoke on the hope that came from the devastation. 

He led the interdenominational Church Disaster Response group that formed on the first Sunday after the flood to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of flood victims. The group still exists as Church Response. 

"We discovered that we were not alone, that we were all in this together and that we as a community would survive," O'Connell said. 

Don Barnett, Rapid City's mayor during the flood, closed the ceremony reflecting on the hard work, fortitude and wisdom that rebuilt the city and brought the community together after the flood. 

He told the audience to thank themselves for saving Rapid City, with their religious character and optimistic spirit and challenged them to leave Sunday's ceremony with a joyful spirit.

"My life and your life should be a continuing expression of an ode to joy," said Barnett, as the band struck the first notes of that final hymn. 

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Contact Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or holly.meyer@rapidcityjournal.com

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