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Remembering the flood of '97: Fire breaks out in downtown Grand Forks, Red River climbs 15 years ago today

Fifteen years ago today, on Saturday, April 19, 1997, a fire broke out in downtown Grand Forks that soon spread to three blocks -- despite several feet of floodwater in the area as the Red River continued to climb. Here's what happened according ...

One of the iconic photographs from the 1997 flood. The Security Building is on fire as Grand Forks firefighters Mike Sandie (left) and Randy Johnson also battle lfoodwaters on Saturday afternoon, April 19
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Fifteen years ago today, on Saturday, April 19, 1997, a fire broke out in downtown Grand Forks that soon spread to three blocks -- despite several feet of floodwater in the area as the Red River continued to climb. Here's what happened according to the Herald:

• In the early morning hours, employees fled the Herald building downtown as sewer backup rushed down the alley and into the below-street-level press room. The evacuation left the press filled with copies of the morning's newspaper, only 9,500 copies through a planned run of 44,000.

Elderly residents of the Ryan House on Third Street North were carried out through two feet of water in the lobby at 4 a.m. Meanwhile, the dikes in East Grand Forks were topped and downtown -- the city's last dry area -- flooded.

Water was four feet deep in downtown Grand Forks by 5 a.m., and the Red hit 52.89 feet by 6 a.m. Water topped the dikes in Riverside Park shortly after 7 a.m., and the Grand Forks water plant failed around 8 a.m.

• The city ordered the evacuation of all of grand Forks east of Washington Street at 10 a.m., and at 11 a.m., UND President Kendall Baker called off school for the rest of the semester, two weeks before finals. It meant no more baseball, track or softball for UND athletics, only weeks after the men's hockey and women's basketball teams had won national championships.

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• About half of Grand Forks and virtually all of East Grand Forks were flooded by noon, and by 1 p.m., Riverside Park was filled with floodwater while Central High School in downtown Grand Forks was inundated with water.

Interstate 29 was closed from Grand Forks to the Grafton exit, leaving Pembina as the only bridge still open across the Red in the Northern Valley.

Meanwhile, flights remained on schedule at Grand Forks International Airport three miles west of the city and officials feared only an electrical shortage to slow things down.

• Grand Forks expanded its mandatory evacuation to include all areas east of Columbia Road at 2 p.m. Northern States Power Co. (now Xcel) said if residents had a dry basement, it would be best to shut off the circuit breaker before evacuating.

More than 50,000 evacuees flocked to shelters in Mayville, N.D., Thompson, N.D., Crookston and Grand Forks Air Force Base, as well as other surrounding towns and homes of friends and relatives.

• Fire was reported at 4:15 p.m. in the Security Building in downtown Grand Forks along Third Street, the pink building across the alley from the federal courthouse. Brisk winds helped to spread the flames north to consume the entire east half of the block, including the Herald's newsroom at the time.

Firefighters struggled to get trucks downtown through three to four feet of floodwater or more, going underwater to hook up hoses to hydrants. But they were forced to watch downtown buildings burn, standing in four feet of water but unable to get water on the fires.

Hydrant pressure was so low it was useless and firefighters siphoned floodwater into hoses to battle blazes. But floodwater sucked up into a diesel engine pumper truck, which stymied the effort. Putting pumpers on semi-truck trailers allowed them to work in the floodwaters, and officials called the U.S. Forest Service in Brainerd, Minn., for help.

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• At 7:15 p.m., a Forest Service plane dropped a chemical fire retardant on the burning downtown buildings. The plane arrived a half hour earlier, but the pilot didn't dare drop the chemical until firefighters evacuated upper floor residents downtown who had ignored the mandatory evacuation order.

Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill said rescuing people kept firefighters from concentrating on fighting the fire. The entire east half of the 100 block of North Third Street was burned to rubble, including the Herald's newsroom, Griggs Landing bar, an apartment and Handy Mail. Fires also burned in several buildings on two other downtown blocks, sparked by the Security Building blaze.

• The fires were still burning on three downtown blocks by 8 p.m. as the Red rose above 53 feet.

By now, 90 percent of East Grand Forks' 8,700 residents were being evacuated. The U.S. Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife Service joined with the Minnesota National Guard and Department of Natural Resources and State Patrol to help Polk County and city officials evacuate thousands of people from isolated and flooded areas of East Grand Forks, using boats and helicopters.

By 10 p.m., about 4,000 people evacuated from East Grand Forks were housed in Crookston, mostly at the new, still-not-open high school.

Related Topics: RED RIVER
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