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Special Report: Looking back at the four who died in a Rochester nursing home during the 1978 flood

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — A violent and powerful act of Mother Nature took place 40 years ago Friday in Rochester: the 1978 flood of the century.

“It was very dramatic. It’s the worst flood we’ve ever had in the city of Rochester,” said a man from a KTTC interview July 6, 1978.

More than six inches of rain fell on Rochester in five hours, causing the Zumbro River and Bear Creek to spill into neighborhoods.

“Right here’s Bear Creek, and if you look across the brick building is the nursing home where the elevator went down,” said Jim Prechel, a police reserve during the 1978 flood.

Prechel was 25 years old back then. He got a call the night of July 5 saying the reserves were going to be activated. According to Prechel, he teamed up with Donna Curry, a fellow reserve officer, and Deputy Jerry Hanson. Their mission was to evacuate people in southeast Rochester, including Woodside Nursing Home, now known as Rochester East Health Services, on 8th Ave SE at the junction of Bear Creek and the Zumbro River.

“The banks were full, but the parking lot was dry. We walked on wet pavement to get inside,” added Prechel.

The nursing home’s bed-ridden residents were on the first floor, where water was starting to accumulate.

Prechel carried some of them upstairs, but he also put some on the elevator.

One group had successfully made it to the second floor. Jim started helping patients on for a second trip to the second floor, including a 71-year-old nursing assistant and three female residents aged 80, 94, and 95.

“I was just going to stay on the elevator to help the nursing assistant to get the patients off.” But as the doors started closing, Curry called Prechel off the elevator to help other residents. “I know I pushed second floor.”

The elevator never made it to the second floor. An apparent electrical surge triggered an automatic function that was programmed to send the elevator down instead of up in the event of a power outage. It descended to the basement, which was completely flooded. Water started entering the elevator and quickly rose.

“That’s when I heard the screaming.” The four women were crying out for help.

Prechel went outside to get Deputy Hanson to assist. However, when he got outside, he saw the deputy on top of his squad car. That’s because within minutes, the empty parking lot was filled with several feet of water. The deputy climbed to the roof through his window so the floodwater wouldn’t sweep him away.

Prechel went back inside to try to do what he could.

“I talked to the people one more time. We’ve got help coming, [I said], and the screaming stopped.”

The four women drowned in less than one minute at 1:15 a.m. on July 6. There was nothing Prechel could do to save them.

“I’ve heard those people scream many times since that night.”

Forty years later he still thinks about what could have happened if he had been on the elevator.

“I like to think that I would’ve gotten out through the escape hatch and maybe gotten two or all four women. For my own sanity, I like to think that I would’ve gotten out. It helps me cope with that night.”

Shannon Rousseau

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