For the past 40 years, Carol Engel just didn’t talk about it.
Her experience the night of the Rapid City flood was something she kept to herself – something she didn’t care to remember. It wasn’t until she wrote about her experience for the 40th anniversary that she realized that writing and talking about it felt good.
“It felt like a release,” she said.
Engel was 19 on June 9, 1972, when the Rapid City Flood devastated her community. She, her husband and three friends had left their children with babysitters and grandparents so they could enjoy a Friday night on the town.
“It had been raining all day really, really hard,” she said. “And there were weird clouds.”
About 7 p.m., the lights began to flicker in the Miner’s Camp, the club on East St. Patrick Street where the friends had gathered. When the electricity went out and guitar amplifiers went dead, the bar put candles on the table and the drummer kept playing.
As word of the weather spread, the bar employees decided to close the bar, sending everyone on their way. Engel and her friends climbed into their friend’s Nash Rambler and headed down Cambell Street toward the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. They were rounding the corner near the football stadium when it hit them.
“All of the sudden this wall of water came,” she said. “It was coming like a wave.”
Engel remembers feeling like a tumbleweed as the car was tossed and turned down the street.
“We were laughing and having fun (before the water hit). It happened so fast it was almost like an accident,” she said.
A tire from a semi-truck probably saved the group’s lives. The Nash Rambler high-centered on the tire near the railroad tracks by the Montana Dakota Utilities warehouse. Engel is convinced the car would have been washed away if not for the tire.
“The water was going so fast you can’t believe it,” she said.
Engel said two employees were stranded at the MDU warehouse building just yards away. When they saw the Nash Rambler, they threw a rope. Engel and her friends tied it to the bumper of the car and the men pulled them to safety.
For the remainder of the night, Engel and her friends took shelter at the MDU warehouse. Engel remembers the sound of the water – like a train beneath her feet. She remembers the velvet black of the night, the only light coming from flammable liquid burning atop the water.
“The water was on fire. That was really weird,” she said.
The water was heavy with mud and debris; the air humid and the smells still so vivid. “The burnt wiring … I can smell it now,” she said.
Throughout the night, the friends listened helplessly as people were lost to the water. “You could hear people screaming at the Fairgrounds,” she said.
Members of the group tried to rescue them but were turned back by the churning water. One by one, the screams stopped. “What do you do … you can’t do anything. It was just a sick feeling,” she said. “I had to go in the building because I couldn’t handle it.”
Stuck in the MDU building with no electricity and no phone service, Engel had no way of knowing if her 1-year-old daughter and parents were alive. “I was so panicked. I was having panic attacks,” she said.
Her two girlfriends were equally as worried over the fate of their children. Late in the night, after the waters had begun to recede somewhat, one girlfriend waded to the street. The water came to her thighs.
She later told Engel that before she made it to high ground, a body struck her leg. She made it home that night to find her children had survived.
Engel’s other friend wasn’t so lucky. She lost her 4-year-old daughter in the flood. “They didn’t find her until four days later,” Engel said.
You have free articles remaining.
Engel’s own daughter survived, as did Engel’s parents. But she wouldn’t find out until the next day.
Looking back, Engel realizes now she was probably in shock during the night and for some time afterward. “I don’t think I left home for a while,” she said.
Like a lot of people who went through it, Engel didn’t care to share her experience of the flood with others. “I never talked about it. I think I might have just held it in,” she said. “Nobody talked about it.”
Engel’s reaction wasn’t unusual, said Bob Holmes, a counselor with Behavior Management in Rapid City.
Holmes remembers his first job in Rapid City in 1993-1994, working as a social worker for Hospice.
“I spent a lot of time talking with people about the flood,” he said.
Elderly people facing death wanted to talk about that defining experience in their life; often for the first time in their life. Holmes said family members frequently showed surprise at the memories.
“They would say, ‘I didn’t know that you felt that way’ or ‘you never said anything about it,’” he said.
Holmes said even 20 years after the flood, people were able to find some peace by talking about it.
Engel doesn’t believe the memories of the flood have haunted her, but she acknowledges they certainly changed her in some ways.
The smell of burning wires still takes her right back to that night. She still watches Rapid Creek with an eagle eye. “When it rains, I will not go to that Civic Center,” she said. “I will not go.”
Her daughter lives on Jackson Boulevard and “it worries me to death.”
Holmes said it’s important to realize that most people who go through a traumatic experience – whether it’s a flood, a shooting or a war experience – will experience some of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as depression, anxiety and nightmares.
“Most people will have it for a while … and then it goes away,” he said. “But it’s different from person to person.”
Holmes said people who have the most luck moving beyond a traumatic experience are people who have social support. Those around them allow them to remember the event and help them to face the experience. People who avoid talking about the experience are more likely to have bad memories and potential lasting effects.
But it’s never too late to talk about it, he said.
Engel said that while she hasn’t had lasting effects of “not talking” about her experience, she has experienced the relief Holmes mentions from sharing her story.
“It made me feel better,” she said.
Engel’s only regret now is that she was never able to thank the men who saved her life. To this day, she isn’t sure who they were or what happened to them. But she’s ready to talk about her experience – to remember it.
“You just think how lucky we were,” she said. “God was with us, right?”
[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Carol Engel's last name was spelled incorrectly in the original story. Correct spelling is Engel.]