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50 years ago, funeral workers faced daunting task after Black Hills Flood

Steve Paula.jpg
From the book "Surviving the '72 Flood"
Johnny Sundby Photography

The 50th commemoration of the 1972 Black Hills Flood is June 9. It’s a time to honor the 238 people who died, and it also brings a flood of memories for those who survived. Each week between now and June 9, SDPB is sharing stories from those survivors, in their own words.

This week, we hear from Steve Paula. He was a college student in 1972 and was spending the summer working at his father's Campbell-Paula Funeral Home in Rapid City when the flood struck.

"That first day, they brought 93. I remember the number well, 93 bodies to our funeral home. And so the fellows that were doing the embalming would come and get one, bring it in the embalming room, embalm it, and we'd place it on one side of the garage or the other, depending on had they been embalmed or not.

"Well, and that's when you're 19 years old, and in that position I was in, you were just thrown in, this was the job, you had to do it. But the magnitude, I didn't have a clue there were going to be 230-plus people die.

"Literally we filled our funeral home and by the time that got done that day, I think Behrens were getting bodies taken to them. They were kind of splitting where they were going. And then I think Osheim Funeral Home or Catron's came online and was able to do work, too. But we literally filled up the first day, and after that point, they kind of went to the other funeral homes.

"And that's where, like I said, as a 19 year old, you're going to live forever. You're a little bit — and maybe it was just me because how I'd grown up — not really sensitive and tuned in to what was happening. It was just, we've got to get through this.

"And I think that's how funeral directors in general coped with this, as you saw it throughout your life and career, you just needed to get through it. It was a job to be done. And I can't say at the time, I didn't sit there and get overwhelmed emotionally. You know, it was — I don't want to say it was just work, because that sounds callous. But you had to approach it that way, or it would've been more than you could maybe handle."

The Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City will screen a new SDPB documentary, “Surviving the ’72 Flood,” at 6:30 p.m. Mountain time on June 8. The film will air on SDPB-1 the next evening, June 9, at 9 Central/8 Mountain.

An SDPB episodic podcast of the same name is available now on various podcast platforms.

Click here for all of SDPB's flood-related content.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.