Estelline Black Feather, 66, was taking a nap on her couch Thursday afternoon when her house shook and woke her up.
It was about 3 p.m., and the sound of a massive explosion rocked her house in the East Ridge neighborhood about a half mile from the center of Pine Ridge.
Thinking it was her own propane tank that blew, she got up and ran outside. But Black Feather immediately saw sheer devastation: A duplex across the street had been destroyed.
“People were running,” she said. “There was a real bad smell, like sulfur.”
Four people died in the explosion, and several others were injured.
Multiple sources in the neighborhood and within tribal government identified the elderly couple who died as Owen Eagle Elk and Oletha Mousseaux. A tribal council member said Thursday that two young females had also been killed.
Authorities with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services and the Oglala Sioux Tribal police declined to talk or were unavailable to comment on the identities of the deceased and injured or the status of the investigation.
A day after the blast, on Friday morning, the scene of the tragedy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation left local residents weary and saddened.
The home appeared as though a tornado had landed directly upon it, leaving behind only a pile of debris — the only indicator of the home and lives that had been destroyed by the blast.
The destroyed duplex and many other homes in the East Ridge neighborhood are owned by Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing, a branch of tribal government that manages and maintains over 1,200 reduced-rent units on the reservation.
In a phone interview on Friday, Paul Iron Cloud, the group’s chief executive officer, said that about 20 minutes before the explosion, OSLH maintenance crews received a call from someone within the duplex complaining about the smell of gas.
Iron Cloud would not comment further on what actions were taken by housing maintenance crews within that time frame.
Many of the other OSLH homes in the East Ridge are outfitted with propane tanks similar to the one that reportedly leaked and caused the explosion on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Richard Greenwald, who represents the Pine Ridge district on the tribal council. “I think the housing is going to take the steps to make sure all the furnaces and water heaters are running properly.”
The explosion in a residential neighborhood unsettled many residents.
Wakiyan Dreamer was at his girlfriend’s house a few blocks away when the blast took place.
“It felt like something hit against the house,” he said.
Francis Ice, 88, who lives next door to Black Feather, was knitting in her back room.
Hard of hearing, she thought something heavy had fallen in her kitchen. She knew something horrible had happened, however, when she saw the men from the neighborhood running past her windows.
Terry Two Bulls was one of those men, and one of the first to run headlong into the devastation to offer help.
“All I saw through the trees was a brown cloud,” he said. “I took off running — and I saw there was no house.”
The explosion had rumbled for three to five seconds in Carol Bad Bear’s estimation, and it shook her home to the foundation. Emerging safely, she followed Two Bulls and the other men up the hill.
Two Bulls and others waded into the wreckage, lifting the collapsed roof in the hopes of finding survivors. Instead they found four bodies: two teenage girls and an elderly couple.
“It was a bad sight to see,” said a visibly shaken neighbor, who declined to give his name. Wiping his eyes in the crook of his elbow, he added, “I couldn’t sleep last night. I keep thinking about it.”
“I didn’t think about it until later on in the day,” said Rueben Little Moon, smoking on his porch. “I’ve never seen a dead body before. It’s just something you can’t get out of your head.”
On Friday, all that remained of the duplex was splintered wood and twisted metal. A lone Oglala Sioux Tribal Police officer guarded the scene while investigating agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives packed up and drove away. The ATF agents would not comment, apart from saying that their agency routinely investigates cataclysmic accidents on Native American reservations.
Glass crunched under Ice’s feet as the small woman inspected her van, parked along the street. The explosion had blasted away the driver’s side windows.
“These were good people living there,” she said, gazing at the ruin. “The elderly couple had just moved in a few months ago. They would sit outside at night.”
Beside the deaths of Eagle Elk and Mousseaux, and two other girls, at least five other individuals were injured, according to Richard Greenwald, a tribal council member representing Pine Ridge Village. Of those, three were flown to hospitals outside Pine Ridge. One adult man was taken to Rapid City, one young female to Sioux Falls and another young female to Scottsbluff, Neb.
Two other individuals were being treated at the Pine Ridge Hospital, Greenwald said in a phone interview on Thursday.
“It’s devastating to our community,” he said over the phone on Friday. “It’s really horrible to lose youth. They were just starting out their lives. We’re going to make sure the family has somewhere to go. They’re not going to be homeless.”
Speaking over the phone on Friday, President John Yellow Bird Steele said he received a call Friday morning from U.S. Sen. John Thune, expressing condolences for the families and asking if he could do anything to help.
“I didn’t know what he could do to help out,” Yellow Bird Steele said, “but we really appreciate Senator Thune reaching out like that.”
Ice remains skeptical that things for others are safe.
Clasping her arms in the chill autumn air, the 88-year-old woman said, “I’m scared to turn on my heater.”