Merlyn Magner Shares Her 1972 Flood Survival Story
Dakota Digest - 06/06/2012
By Cassie Bartlett
Two hundred and thirty eight people died during the Rapid City Flood of 1972. Merlyn Magner survived a near-death experience while in the flood waters, but lost both her parents and a brother. What started out as journal entries turned into a book that helped Magner cope with the pain. On this Dakota Digest, SDPB’s Cassie Bartlett brings us Magner’s story as part of our week-long series remembering the '72 Black Hills Flood.
On a warm spring afternoon, Merlyn Magner is walking across the bare cement foundation that used to be her home.
“The kitchen window was right about, can I show you? Was right about…here. This is right about where Jeff and I attempted to get out.”
There are no walls left here, only large lilac bushes in full bloom, their sweet aroma hangs in the thick, humid air. Magner looks down at a small set of plastic flowers and a few other items lodged on a small shelf near the ground.
“This is where I lost them so I put these flowers out here when I would come and I would say a prayer.”
Magner spent her formative years here at the mouth of Dark Canyon in Rapid City. She calls it a magical house and she has fond memories of warm afternoons like this one.
“We would sail down the creek in the summer on inner-tubes and little carved out plastic boats and wade into the creek bed, ride bicycles down the canyon roads. It was really idyllic, for kids, it was a great place to grow up,” Magner says.
While it was a beautiful spot for a house, it was right in the middle of flood devastation. On June 9th, 1972, 19-year-old Magner says she was waiting for her brother Jeff to arrive. He was moving back from Arizona. Magner says the morning was beautiful and she was contemplating how they could spend the day outside.
“It was a good day. It wasn’t a foreboding day in any way at all, until probably that evening. Then it started to rain and things began to get a little scary,” Magner says.
Once the rain began, Magner says things escalated quickly. She says when she saw the advisory scrolling across the bottom of the TV telling campers to move to higher ground she knew something wasn’t right. She says it was a time when she needed her parents, but they had gone across the street to a neighbor’s house to watch the creek rise.
“Jeff had noticed that there was water lapping on the outside of the house, which is quite alarming. I didn’t really, I think, understand the seriousness of what that meant, and he did, he clearly did,” Magner says.
As the storm brought more rain and Magner’s family home continued to flood, her brother told her they needed to get to the roof of the house. Jeff made it up first, but when Magner tried to escape through the window to climb to the top, she got swept away in the current.
“As soon as I got out of the window, I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t move. It was like the weight of the world was pressed against my back and it was like, ‘What do I do now?’ I was helpless at that point. And then pretty much swept away and then it was pure chaos,” Magner says.
Magner says she lost sight of her brother’s face and began to float away with the water. She says she saw her parents on the neighbor’s roof and they yelled at her to grab onto something, but the force of the water was too much for her to fight against.
“My body was moving in that same kind of motion, that somersaulting motion. Then I just knew that I didn’t have really any time left because my lungs were filling with water and I thought, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be, this is it, I’m going to die.’ And what a thought for a 19-year-old girl on a summer day who thinks she’s got the world in the palm of her hand,” Magner says.
After a few minutes of being in the water, Magner says she hit some condominiums that were just being built and was able to climb to its roof. Eventually, the National Guard came in and rescued her. When she walked back to her house Magner says it was still standing, but completely gutted. The neighbor’s house where her parents had been was swept away. Magner lost her parents and brother Jeff to the flood.
Magner says she didn’t cry about her loss – but she still has flashbacks. After traveling the world for years looking for answers as to why it happened, Magner wrote a book about her experience called “Come into the Water: A Survivor’s Story.”
“I think that that’s what the book did, someone said it’s like you finally put the ribbon around it. That’s where maybe the acceptance, or the peace if you will, if you can call it that. Because there is no answer to the why it happened,” Magner says.
Instead of visiting her family's graves in Minnesota, Magner says she prefers to visit the spot where she lost them.
“Everything’s covered in lilacs now, which is sweet, I like that. But it’s awfully bittersweet,” Magner says.
Magner says she hopes future generations will learn from this tragedy and won’t let people build on the flood plains.
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