Ron and Lavonne Masters tell the story of the 1972 flood

Dakota Digest - 06/05/2012

This week we're focusing on the 40th anniversary of the most deadly disaster in South Dakota History. The 1972 Black Hills flood claimed the lives of 238 people.  Ron and Lavonne (LA-vaun) Masters lost three children to the flood, and only narrowly survived themselves.  The couple told their story at the Rapid City Public Library Oral History Program. The library is archiving the stories of '72 flood survivors. SDPB's Charles Michael Ray took excerpts from the Masters story and compiled today's Dakota Digest.   Below is an extended transcript.

 When we got home the TV was on and on the bottom they were scrolling ‘Possible heavy flooding along Rapid Creek.' That was really the only warning, no one really knew what was going on," says Lovonnee Masters  '72 Flood Survivor. 

"I had a four-wheel drive international Scout so I said let's take the scout because it's a little higher profile and it was higher off the ground because the water was already running across our ankles and across our feet and partway up our leg across our yard. So I said we'll take the scout, we'll take the scout. We got the family situated in the scout and backed out of the driveway. It was just a few feet to Jackson Boulevard and the bridge and took a left. We didn't get across the bridge and the first wall of water caught us," says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

"I felt the vehicle start floating and it cut the engine out immediately. Then it spun us around and we started to drift with the current," says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

But all of a sudden we're floating backwards facing into the water and all of a sudden we hit a hard jolt. We found out later we had wedged between some of those great, giant cottonwood trees, says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

"When the water came up in the front and it was already up to our necks, going like this to keep our heads above water at this point. My first thought was, I didn't know I was going to die like this, says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

"But for some reason, immediately, I let my feet float up across Lavonne who was sitting in the passenger side of the vehicle. I put my feet against that window and just shoved it as hard as I could and it dropped about that far. The old saying is if you can get your head through it, you can get your body through it. I did get my head through it and I got the rest of my body through it and I got up on top of the vehicle. This time the water is still right at the top of the vehicle, it hasn't covered it yet. So I'm standing up on the cab and I reach back into that open space to see if I can get ahold of anybody," says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

"I just thought I was going to die because I started breathing in water. I said, ‘Well, here I come, Lord.' I began to feel the beginning emotions and feelings of death. It was like I was being pulled toward this beautiful, marvelous light. I began to feel so euphoric that when he got ahold of my arm and pulled me out of there, it was so disappointing. Here I was, going I knew to this wonderful place, heaven, and I get pulled out into this chaos around us that was unbelievable, it's really difficult for me to describe everything that's going on. He hangs me in this tree. I'm holding onto this branch on the cottonwood, thank God for those wonderful cottonwoods were there in that area near the creek. I was hanging on to that and then he reached back in," says Lovonnee Masters  '72 Flood Survivor

"So I reached back in there to see if I could get anyone else. I happen to grab the arm of our oldest daughter, Karen, the 14-year-old, and pulled her through. She had in her arms in the backseat our little guy Timothy who was two and a half. When I pulled her through that, she lost him. She lost her grip on him. I think I can probably insert at this point that Timothy was the last body that was found. He was found in Rapid Valley. He had actually floated all the way from Rapid City all the way through and was found way out in a tree. The only way he was identifiable, he was the 238th body, was his little Minnesota Twins jacket that he had on. We were able to identify him because of that," says Ron Masters '72 flood survivor."

"At that point, things just started happening because things were breaking loose. There were parts of houses that went by us, automobiles that went by us. I'll never forget the sound of the propane tanks that came down from the Braeburn addition that was beyond Canyon Lake. Some of those tanks were spewing some of the bottle gas. The fumes you could smell that none of them were on fire, but the fumes and they were hissing and they were sailing by us. On one occasion, I looked down at a flash of lightning and saw the body of a rather large man face down that just went sailing by us rapidly in the water and disappeared out of site. All kinds of debris and things that we would see go by us,"  says Ron Masters 72 flood survivor.

"But then later, a lot of thoughts go through your mind. I can't say my life flashed through my mind, my whole life like some people say when they're facing death. But a lot of thoughts went through our minds. I had some thoughts about things I had thought were so important that very day that no longer seemed important. You suddenly have a totally different perspective about living. What is important? It's your loved ones. It's people that matter, not things. I think as we were standing there seeing all those things washed away and gone forever, most of them, you realize that things are not important." says Ron  and Lavonne Masters 72 flood survivors.

"Tthe water was cold, we hung on then, I hung on to Lavonne with one arm to keep her from being swept away and then hung on and dug my fingernails into this big ol' tree with the other arm and almost miraculously was able to hang on to her from 10:30 to maybe 4 o'clock in the morning or so when dawn started to break and the water started to subside. I was hanging in that tree and when debris would come and hit us at the back of our legs we would swing forward. I will never forget there was one heavy thing that hit us at the back of our legs and we found out later it was a kitchen countertop, had come and just hit us with the force of that water. We swung forward almost out straight and I thought I can't hang on like this. In fact, I yelled that to him, ‘I can't hang on any longer!' And he said, ‘Baby, I brought you this far you're not leaving me now.' Ok, ok."  says Ron  and Lavonne Masters 72 flood survivors.

"Hanging on there for that period of time you're in some degree of shock and finally what to do to bolster ourselves we just started to sing, we just started to sing. We sang some of the old hymns of the church that we knew like, ‘Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness.' We sang another song that was kind of inappropriate, ‘Praise the Lord, praise the Lord let the earth hear his voice, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice.' The earth was hearing His voice. We sang the old hymn, ‘How great thou art when I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the university displayed.' We were listening to the power and the raging of the storm and we just sang our way through it. We sang and sang and our daughter Karen joined us. The Bible talks about in the Old Testament about God giving us songs in the night and sometimes He does that. In the darkest and most difficult times, somehow a song will carry us through." says Ron  and Lavonne Masters 72 flood survivors.

"Then finally later in the morning about 5 o'clock some men of the National Guard appeared across the Rapid Creek on the other side of the bridge. They did rescue this girl, the first thing they did was rescue this girl that we had heard and got her out of the tree. T


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