- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

OGLALA, S.D. (AP) - When the rescue boat flipped, the collective gasp from the water’s edge was audible even over the rushing current and the idling hum of the emergency vehicles.

For Pennington County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Stalder, the situation went suddenly quiet, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1DKZVHC ) reported. The crying baby in his arms was stunned to silence as they both plunged out of the boat, dipped under the surface and popped up in the foaming, fast-moving, muddy-brown flood.

“All I said to myself was, ‘Don’t let go of this kid,’” he remembered later.

Several hours before the rescue attempt, Stalder and other members of the Rapid City/Pennington County Water Rescue Team were sleeping at home, unaware that on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the White River had become engorged by recent snow and rain throughout its watershed.

Rescue team members were awakened by phone calls sometime around 1 or 2 a.m. on Saturday, May 16. Stalder hurried to the Public Safety Building in Rapid City and scrambled into a patrol vehicle with fellow team member Jeff Andrews, also a sheriff’s deputy.



They sped through the night, covering 65 miles out of the Black Hills, into the plains, around the southwestern edge of the Badlands and onto the reservation.

Just north of a bridge over the White River on BIA Highway 41, the meandering river runs parallel to the road about a quarter-mile to the east. The flood surge there spilled over the flat land and overwhelmed a stream bed and culvert.

When Stalder and Andrews arrived, there was a quarter-mile-wide, knee-deep flow of water over the highway.

Perhaps 60 yards to the east, down off the highway and in much deeper water, a white compact car was lodged against a thicket of trees. Only the car’s roof and back end poked up out of the surrounding torrent.

Six people - a man, a woman and four children, including a baby - were huddled on top of the car.

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The car had been washed off the road about 10 p.m. Friday. By the time Stalder and Andrews completed their dash to the scene, it was 4 a.m. Saturday. Out there on top of the car, with nighttime temperatures dipping into the 40s, the two adults, three children and the baby already had shivered and clung together through five or six hours.

Upstream from the car and about 12 winding river miles to the southwest, a stream gauge recorded a 4-foot rise in the river’s depth between late Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning.

Mark Anderson, director of the Rapid City-based South Dakota Water Science Center for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the flow at the gauge site increased dramatically after midnight and surged to an estimated 6,920 cubic feet per second - roughly 3 million gallons per minute - by early Saturday, surpassing the location’s record of 5,200 cfs in 1947.

“So what this means,” Anderson said, “is the people in the car would have endured the worst conditions as the nighttime progressed. It must have been horrifying.”

Their horror may have been increased as they watched the failure of initial rescue efforts. Other motorists saw the car get swept off the road and called for help. Emergency crews from the Oglala Sioux Tribe and area fire departments were the first to respond. They arrived from the north and the south and parked on each side of the flooded road section, unable at first to join forces across the watery divide. That changed later as the water subsided to the road shoulders.

Some rescue workers waded out toward the car. The water was too fast and deep. They tried piloting a metal, flat-bottomed boat to the car but couldn’t get it there safely.

“It was a raging little river,” said Bob Pille, who worked the scene for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Emergency Management Team.

Feelings of helplessness set in. The call went out for the Rapid City-based water rescue team, a specially trained group consisting of city and county public-safety employees and volunteers.

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Three team members arrived first: Brian Povandra, of the Rapid City Fire Department, Jeremy Stauffacher, of the Rapid City Police Department, and Jason Dannenbring, of Pennington County Search and Rescue. Stalder and Andrews arrived soon after.

Wearing buoyant swift-water rescue suits, all five got in the water. Some tried to walk arm-in-arm to the car and got within 10 yards of it before a powerful, chest-deep current threatened to overtake them. They were worried about “strainers” - branches and other debris lodged between trees - which could drown a rescuer who gets caught and pulled under.

Andrews later compared the force of the flood’s main current to whitewater rapids. Stalder called it “wicked.” The flood had essentially created a new and angry river channel.

The team regrouped, and team leader Povandra decided to make a solo push toward the car with a rope. Through a combination of swimming and struggling for perhaps a half-hour, moving from tree to tree through the thicket that ensnared the car, he made it. The top of the car would remain his post for the duration of the rescue.

A rapid-deployment craft - an inflated yellow canoe made for pulling victims out of the water - was guided out to the car with Povandra’s rope attached to one end and a rope from the road attached to the other end.

Next, Stauffacher, who was nearby in the water with the other team members, worked his way over and climbed into the canoe.

The adult male victim and one of the children joined him. Povandra, still atop the car, fed out his canoe rope while rescuers on the road pulled the other rope and hauled the canoe to safety. Stauffacher got out with the man and the child.

Two safe, four to go.

Povandra pulled the canoe back toward the car.

Meanwhile, the other team members were positioned downstream, standing in thigh-deep water to provide what rescuers call “containment” in case anyone on the car fell in. Dannenbring tried to push through the water along a rope and climb into the canoe for the next trip. He slipped and went fighting into the current. Stalder was performing containment and caught Dannenbring, who by then was fatigued from the struggle.

Stalder made the next attempt and clambered into the canoe. Povandra helped the woman and a girl into the canoe and handed the baby to Stalder. The last victim, a child, remained on the car with Povandra, who began letting out the canoe rope.

Suddenly, the rope snagged. The canoe listed and flipped. Andrews, who was nearby in the water, later recalled the sound of shocked emergency workers who were 60 yards away on the road.

“The whole shoreline,” Andrews said, “you could just hear this gasp.”

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All four of the canoe’s occupants were in the water. The current swept the woman and the girl toward the spot at which containment rescuers had positioned themselves.

Andrews grabbed the woman and helped her to her feet in shallower water.

Stauffacher, who’d taken the first trip in the canoe, and Dannenbring, who’d tried to make the second trip, grabbed the girl.

Two more were safe.

But Stalder and the baby were not.

They had dipped underwater for a moment before the buoyancy in Stalder’s suit popped them back up. They were swept into chest-deep water against some trees, where Stalder found himself in a mess of rope and branches.

A section of rope was stretched tight across the baby’s leg. The stunned infant, who’d been quieted by the sudden dunking, squealed in pain.

Stalder worked free of the rope and struggled toward the rescuers who were providing downstream containment. Andrews was there and grabbed the baby from Stalder.

Povandra watched it all from atop the car.

“I can tell you that when that boat tipped, it was probably the most helpless and awesome 30 to 60 seconds I’ve ever had in my career,” Povandra said later. “Helpless because I was on the vehicle and there was nothing I could do. Awesome because the other four guys did exactly as they were trained and jumped in and took care of the situation in a matter of seconds.”

There weren’t enough life jackets at the scene for everyone - following an after-action review, that problem has since been remedied for the future - but there was a life jacket available for the last child on the car. Instead of using the canoe again, Povandra, in his buoyant suit, harnessed himself and the life-jacketed child to the rope stretching from the road and used it to get out of the water.

It was 6 or 7 a.m. Saturday, and all were safe.

From the time the car was swept off the road to the time the last victim was safely on land, about eight hours had passed. Rescuers spent much of that time plotting moves and struggling against the force of the water. A National Guard helicopter was requested at one point, but weather kept it away.

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Days later, after the water receded, the car was still stuck in a tree with the upturned back end about 8 feet off the ground. A wrecker eventually hauled it away.

The victims were a man, his adult sister and her four children. The Journal spoke to the woman, who said she and her brother were hesitant to come forward. They had not agreed to be interviewed or publicly identified by the time of this story’s deadline.

“It’s still very traumatic for us right now,” the woman said.

Her brother posted an account of the rescue on his Facebook page, explaining that they had laundry in the car that they wrapped around themselves to keep warm during the night and that “For a split second I thought to myself, ‘Is this the way we go?’”

Stalder, a patrol deputy, and Andrews, an investigator, were honored July 28 with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Distinguished Service Award for their actions during the rescue.

They were quick to credit the efforts of many emergency responders from different agencies, races and backgrounds, and to note how well the tribal and non-tribal rescuers worked together.

“The whole time we were there, it didn’t matter who you were,” Andrews said. “We were just doing a common task taking care of these people.

“Our thought as we were walking out that day was, ‘That’s the way it should be all the time.’”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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