Ron hesitated before replying, "I think well be all right,
Carroll." After all, the property had never flooded before. What
nobody knew was that the fierce downpour and swollen streams and rivers
had caused the failure of Canyon Lake Dam, adding a surge to the flood
that was already beginning to lift homes from their foundations.
Suddenly, the phone went dead.
The lights went out.
A rush of water broke through a basement window.
Ron and LaVonne piled their children into their 1963 International
Scout with four-wheel drive and backed out of the driveway. But they
didnt get far before the vehicle was floating, tossing and turning
amid the crashing waves and debris. The Scout stopped between two huge
cottonwood trees and water quickly rose inside. The family was now fighting
for their lives.
Eight-year-old Jonathan reached into the front seat and wrapped his
arms around his mothers neck. "I love you, Mother,"
he told her.
"I love you, too, Jonathan," she said, returning his hug.
"Its in Gods hands now," said 12-year-old Stephen.
What followed was a race against death. "A living hell,"
recalls Ron. He was able to pull LaVonne and Karen from the vehicle
before the roof disappeared under the waters. Karen held tightly onto
2-year-old Timothy, but the torrent wrenched him from her arms and swept
Stephen, Jonathan and 10-year-old JoAnn, all trapped in the back seat,
disappeared in the now-submerged vehicle from the sight of their terrified
parents and older sister. It was impossible to reach them.
Ron, LaVonne and Karen spent the night in the treetops, dodging debris
and praying that the branches would hold as tree after tree succumbed
to the crashing waves. In the Masterses 1992 book, Some Through
the Flood, Ron recalls the chaos that surrounded them: "Trees
crashed to the ground. Power lines snapped. Bolts of lightning flashed.
Sparks danced nearby. We could be electrocuted. Cars swept by. A large
propane tank hissed and spun around as gas escaped. Boards from disintegrating
homes, partial walls, campers, boats and uprooted trees raced by, some
within inches of us. Once in a flash of lightning I saw the body of
a man pass by quickly and out of sight.
Survival became all-consuming."
In the morning, as the waters began to recede, a cry came from the
vehicle. JoAnn had miraculously survived more than five hours in the
submerged Scout thanks to an air pocket in the back top corner. Tragically,
her brothers had suffocated beside her. Ron pulled his terror-stricken
little girl to safety. "Daddy," she said, "God wants
me to be a missionary."
"He surely must, honey, He surely must."
Workers from the National Guard arrived soon in rescue boats and took
the Masterses now a family of four to a hospital to be
checked for injuries. A family from church took them to their home.
They rode out the next few days in shock and numbness as they made plans
to bury their two oldest sons. Little Timothys body would not
be found for two weeks.
The community of Rapid City suffered with them. Within six hours the
June 9, 1972, downpour had dumped 15 inches of rain. The National Weather
Service reported 238 people killed with 3,000 more injured. Damage totaled
$160 million with 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles destroyed. Nineteen
families at First Assembly were hit by the flood, losing homes or possessions.
The Rapid City flood is considered one of the worst natural disasters
in American history. Ron and LaVonne, devastated by the loss of their
beloved young sons, were faced with a choice: Would they let this destroy
them or would they survive this ultimate test of faith?
Ron, LaVonne, Karen and JoAnn chose the latter. They made a choice
to believe that their God was still a good God. They made a choice to
believe He would work all things together for good in the end. And they
made a choice to keep living. "We had to choose to think positive,"
says LaVonne. "And sometimes we had to choose it a thousand times
God has honored their faithfulness. This family has not only survived
they have thrived. With a ministry to the hurting that has touched
countless lives over the last 30 years, they are a shining example of
Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the
good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose"
Today, all four are serving in full-time ministry with the Assemblies
of God. Ron and LaVonne, now senior pastors at First Assembly in Sidney,
Mont., traveled extensively for six years sharing their story and ministering
in Bible camps, family and marriage retreats, pastors seminars and church
The flood experience opened doors for ministry that the family could
have never imagined. "God told us He wanted us to help His hurting
people," says Ron. "When you try to minister to people who
are in the midst of a very difficult situation, they look at you and
think, What do you know about pain? When we share our story, they realize
that we know about pain and darkness, and they are ready to listen and
be ministered to."
Ron and LaVonne were amazed at the number of people they met as they
traveled who are carrying some type of grief. Ron refers to it as the
"Most people have lost somebody at some point in their lives,"
he says. The Masterses have found healing through helping these people,
and they encourage those who are hurting to let God use them to reach
others. "If youve gone through a divorce, you may be the
perfect person to help someone else who is going through that,"
Ron says. "Or if youve been abused, or lost a child, God
can use you to help someone else in that situation. Let God take a negative
experience and bring something positive out of it."
JoAnn, having never forgotten the call to the mission field that came
while she was submerged in the floodwaters, followed her call to Tinian,
the second most populated island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern
Mariana Islands. She and her husband, Reid Ellis, pastor a Micronesian
Assemblies of God church and run a Christian school on the island. They
have two daughters: Victoria, 6, and Elizabeth, 4.
Karen, also credentialed with the Assemblies of God, is a childrens
pastor at Westgate Chapel in Seattle, where she lives with her husband,
Timothy, and children Jonathan, 17, Christie, 14, and Jamie Lynn, 10.
Pictures of Stephen, Jonathan and Timothy now hang on Ron and LaVonnes
"family wall," though for 20 years they did not because the
pain was too great. "Many times I stop and look at those pictures,"
says Ron. "Sometimes I talk to them and say, One of these
days, boys, Mom and Dad are coming too. "
Perhaps the most tangible way they keep the memory of the boys alive
is through a school founded in 1977 in their honor. Memorial Christian
School, K-6, still operates out of First Assembly in Rapid City as a
living memorial to all the children killed in the Rapid City flood.
Stephen, Jonathan and Timothy will never be forgotten. "When I
reach heaven my heart will flip because Ill recognize the unison
voices of my three sons," LaVonne says. "The joy will be ecstatic
all the pain of the past forgotten. Eternity will be ours."