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Herald staffer Brad Dokken recalls April 19, 1997 – the day Grand Forks flooded and burned

A Saturday that had started with being evacuated from my home ended in a hotel room in downtown St. Paul, where I would live for the next month.

gfh fire retardant
A fire-bombing plane, usually used in forest fires, drops fire retardant on the blaze over downtown Grand Forks on Saturday, April 19, 1997. The electrical fire in one of the oldest office buildings in downtown Grand Forks , the Security Building, was reported at 4:15 p.m. and was still being fought 22 hours later.
Chuck Kimmerle / Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — The National Guard truck came down my flooded street shortly after dawn, a bullhorn blaring the message that everyone needed to evacuate.

It was Saturday morning, April 19, 1997, and one of the most eventful days in my 37-year newspaper career was underway.

I hastily threw some clothes into an overnight bag, hopped in my truck and headed to the house of a co-worker friend who lived in a drier part of town. The street in front of my house was flooded, and water was creeping ever-closer to the foundation of the house, but the alley behind my garage was still dry.

I made it to my co-worker’s house without incident, but I had no idea what the rest of the day would hold in store.

Sleep had been hard to come by that night, so I tried to grab a couple of hours of shut-eye after my coworker and I headed to her parents’ place near Manvel, North Dakota. Floods and sleep aren’t a good combination, though, and my attempt was mostly a wasted effort.

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I was too wound up to sleep.

We hadn’t been there more than a couple of hours when a message came over the radio from then-Herald editor Mike Jacobs: Everyone on the Herald staff who could get there was to meet on the UND campus early that afternoon.

The Herald building and pressroom downtown had flooded the night before, so Jacobs and other Herald managers were scrambling to find a place to set up a makeshift newsroom.

There was no social media in those days, and people were hungry for the kind of flood coverage the Herald could provide.

Plans took an abrupt turn mid-afternoon, when word came down that several downtown buildings, including the Herald, had caught fire. I don’t recall exactly how it all came together, but Herald management, along with officials from Knight-Ridder — the Herald’s parent company at the time — decided that producing and printing the newspaper at then-sister paper the St. Paul Pioneer Press was the most feasible option.

Within a couple of hours, a plane had been chartered to fly Herald copy editor Andy Braford, photographer Chuck Kimmerle and I to St. Paul. As downtown Grand Forks flooded and burned, Kimmerle shot one of the most iconic images of the flood as an airplane dropped red fire retardant over the city in a desperate effort to control flames that fire crews couldn’t reach because the raging Red River had flooded the streets.

04XX22.N.GFH.FLOOD25YEARS2.jpg
As downtown Grand Forks burned below on April 19, 1997, former Herald photographer Chuck Kimmerle took this photo of a pensive Brad Dokken and former Herald copy editor Andy Braford (front seat) as they rode a chartered plane to St. Paul to help put out the next day's edition of the Herald at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Chuck Kimmerle / Grand Forks Herald

It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon in April, but we felt like we were looking down on a war zone.

Early that evening, upon our arrival in St. Paul, a crew of Pioneer Press staffers was ready and waiting to help us get a newspaper out the door.

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Within days, a sizable team of reporters, photographers and copy editors from Knight-Ridder newspapers across the country was either in St. Paul, working out of the Pioneer Press, or up north, working out of the Manvel School — which became the Herald's temporary newsroom for the next several weeks — helping the Herald cover the biggest local story in the newspaper’s history.

Content was transmitted to St. Paul via technology that was primitive by today’s standards. In some cases, film was even flown to St. Paul to be processed by staff at the Pioneer Press. Copy editors and page designers working out of the Pioneer Press prepared the content for print.

Initially, newspapers were flown to Grand Forks and Crookston and later were shipped by truck as bridges into Grand Forks reopened.

A Saturday that had started with being evacuated from my home ended in a hotel room at the St. Paul Radisson — today the InterContinental Hotel Riverfront — where I lived for the next month while working out of the nearby Pioneer Press building.

“Come Hell and High Water,” the Herald never missed a beat.

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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