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The story behind the Herald's iconic 'Come Hell and High Water' edition

Twenty years ago today, the Grand Forks Herald's 'Come Hell and High Water' newspaper was produced.

It is perhaps the most iconic front page in the paper's history thanks to a stunning centerpiece photo showing the total devastation of the flood and fire in downtown Grand Forks and a gripping headline that still resonates two decades later.

A copy of it hangs in the Community Room at the Herald.

It's impossible to walk past it without stopping to take it all in -- no matter how many times you have done it before.

On Thursday, the 20-year anniversary of the day the centerpiece photo was shot by Eric Hylden, I walked over to his desk and asked if he would be willing to walk back out to that spot with me and recreate the photo.

He agreed.

As we strolled through the area that was once obliterated by a fire and is now home to $300,000-plus condominiums, I asked Hylden all about the photo and that particular page.

He explained it.

April 20, 1997, started in Park River, N.D., for Hylden.

His home was flooded, so he was commuting back-and-forth from the family farm on very little sleep.

"We were running on adrenaline," he said.

Early in the day, Herald editor Mike Jacobs told Hylden to do whatever he needed to do to get downtown and snap photos of what's left after a fire burned the Security Building and others around it -- even if it meant intimidating his way there.

That's not exactly Hylden's style, though.

He's a laid back, easygoing, friendly guy. Never confrontational.

But that has its advantages, too.

Hylden had developed a working relationship throughout the years with Grand Forks Police Department Lt. Byron Sieber, who was in charge of handling the media for the flood.

Hylden and Sieber were near each other on the campus of UND -- the emergency headquarters where media members were stationed -- when two reporters from WCCO in the Twin Cities pulled up. They had an SUV towing a boat called a Zodiac. It was basically a raft with a small motor on the back.

They asked Sieber for permission to go downtown on the boat to film the damage.

Sieber said it was OK under one condition: They had to take Hylden, too.

They accepted.

"I'll always be grateful to Byron for doing that," Hylden said.

So, the two WCCO reporters, Hylden and Sieber drove to Rydell's on Washington Street and 24th Avenue South to launch the boat about two-and-a-half miles from downtown.

They got in the boat and immediately headed east toward the river. Then, they turned north.

The neighborhoods were eerily quiet.

The silence was only pierced by home alarms buzzing along Reeves Drive. Many porch lights were still on, a reminder of how quickly everyone evacuated a day earlier.

"We were in awe of what we were seeing," Hylden said.

At one point, they came across a power line dangling in the water. They quickly turned around and found a different route.

As their boat got closer to downtown and to the river, they easily felt the water's current getting stronger.

Every so often, a massive five-ton Army truck drove by, plowing through the water -- its wake smashing windows on buildings alongside the road.

They arrived in the downtown area on South Fourth Street. They turned right onto Demers Avenue, then left on North Third Street.

As they cruised past what is now Brick and Barley, O'Really's and Level Ten, they couldn't quite see the fire damage on the Security Building, because of the four-story building on the southwest corner that was in the way. But once they got to the intersection of North Third Street and First Avenue, they could see it all.

The devastation stunned them.

"We didn't expect to see that," Hylden said.

The building was still smoking.

The air smelled like a mixture of gasoline, floodwater and ash.

Hylden quickly moved into work mode.

He grabbed his Canon EOS-1, 17-35mm f2.8 lens, zoomed out as wide as he could and started shooting. He fired off four or five frames from the middle of that intersection.

The boat never stopped.

Because he was using film at the time, he didn't know what exactly he had captured.

They went around the block once. When they got onto Second Avenue, Hylden could see that part of the Herald building also had burned.

They turned back south on Fourth Street.

The current was so strong that, at one point, the boat basically stood still in the water, unable to make progress against the strong north flow of water. But they eventually made it back.

Hylden packed up his film along with the other Herald photographers. It was flown to St. Paul.

The paper was being designed and printed at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which was owned by Knight-Ridder at the time, just like the Herald.

Pioneer Press photographer Rich Marshall looked at the shots and picked out the very first frame.

Hylden said it was the right call.

The first frame had the full Security Building in it and a great reflection in the floodwater. The top of the building got cut off on Hylden's second frame. The third frame didn't have as strong of a reflection.

Hylden still has the negatives.

Hylden's photo was the centerpiece on the morning of April 21, 1997.

Herald designer Andy Braford, who started at the paper as a sports part-timer and was flown to St. Paul to design Herald pages a day earlier, typed perhaps the most iconic headline in the paper's history: Come Hell and High Water.

A John Stennes photo of a street sign barely peeking above the floodwaters appeared next to the headline.

The main story was written by Liz Fedor, who later went to the Star Tribune.

Braford has since worked at the Star Tribune, New York Times and recently moved to the Washington Post.

The April 21, 1997, edition was one of several newspapers that helped the Herald win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1998.

The Herald's photo staff of Hylden, Stennes, Jackie Lorentz and Chuck Kimmerle finished runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Spot News Photography that year, too.

That front page became part of the Herald's lore, and Jacobs later referenced it in a speech:

There was a flood and a fire.

Our building was destroyed.

We were without telephones.

We were without computers.

We were without presses.

We were not, however, without resources.

We managed to publish every day, Come Hell and High Water.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 12th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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