The tragedy at Albert Pike will go down in history as one of the worst in this region’s history.
<br />The reason it felt horrifyingly overwhelming was because it was.
<br />Twenty people died in a flash flood that tore through the popular retreat in the wee hours of June 11. Large-scale rescue and recovery efforts in the wilderness area lasted three days. The final body was located Monday, an 8-year-old girl from Shreveport.
<br />Many campers were rescued, thankfully, but the pall the deaths cast on the community made those victories difficult to appreciate. More than half of the victims were from our immediate region: DeKalb, Ashdown, Nash, Texarkana, Foreman, and Hope. Of those 11, four were children, ages 8 or under. Eight children in all died.
<br />Catastrophes such as this are rare in this region. For all the tornadoes, floods, ice storms and natural disasters we’ve accumulated in this corner or the world—at least the ones that have been recorded—few have exacted such a human toll. For all the train and automobile accidents, murders and the like, for all horrible headlines to which we’ve been subjected—the unsolved Phantom Killings in Texarkana in 1946 that left five dead, or the 1980 shooting at First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas, that also left five dead—seldom have we had to grieve for so many at one time.
<br />Only two instances come to mind. Both happened long ago and are part of our history rather than our memory.
<br />The first happened just east of here, near Rondo, Ark., before Texarkana was even a town. Texas soldiers camped there frequently on their way to join the Confederate Army. In the fall of 1862, an outbreak of what was believed to be measles overcame the camp and left at least 85 dead. They were buried all around the camp, but after the war the citizens consolidated all the dead and reburied them in Rondo Cemetery, where they have been duly memorialized.
<br />Twenty-four of the soldiers were later identified and honored. While initially black measles was considered the cause, a later review suggested drinking contaminated water might be to blame, resulting in paratyphoid fever.
<br />This is the largest death toll in the region the Texarkana Gazette now covers, however it must be put in some context. Death by disease was quite common in the early years of settling this country.
<br />Indeed, the Caddo Indians were practically wiped out by smallpox, measles and other diseases carried by European interlopers settling the region. By 1835, the Caddos, indigenous to East Texas, had seen their population drop from 18,000 to 5,000. There are few records to help us understand exactly where or how this played out, but we know it had to be a devastating experience.
<br />The second recorded tragedy happened July 12, 1882, at the Paragon Saloon on Broad Street in Texarkana. The saloon was a long wooden structure that had recently been overshadowed by a three-story brick building on its flank. On that day a storm had blown in at about 6:30 p.m. and many a man had headed for the glow of its kerosene lamps and for all the comfort and amenities a place like that might harbor.
<br />But on this day, the night darkened, the storm intensified, the rain plowed down, the wind picked up, and the adjacent wall on the new brick building came tumbling down on the saloon roof and the crowd below it.
<br />Those who weren’t killed immediately were trapped underneath the rubble and burned to death. The rain continued as did the fires. Few rescues were made. In the end, 29 people were identified and verified dead, but the count may have exceeded 50. Many people passed through Texarkana at the time, and there was no way for officials to know who or how many.
<br />Those who were never identified or who had no local ties were buried in a mass grave at Rose Hill Cemetery in Texarkana, where they rest today.
<br />Back to the present, Mark Gregory, an editor for the Hot Springs Sentinel Record, reported last week that the flash flood at Albert Pike may represent the deadliest single disaster in Arkansas history.
<br />Arguably, a series of 16 tornadoes that blew through the state on March 1, 1997, may be the worst. Twenty-five people died in Denmark, Benton, Mabelvale, Jacksonport, Fontaine and Arkadelphia on that day.
<br />Of these towns, Arkadelphia, 70 miles northeast of here on Interstate 30, was the closest to us. The F4 tornado that felled this Clark County community caused six deaths and 113 injuries.
<br />How the tragedy at Camp Albert Pike compares to others in the state and region does nothing to make it more bearable. Perspective comes only with time, if it comes at all.
<br />We don’t recognize history when it happens, we just see the hurt and the horror and the heartbreak. That’s how it should be, that’s how it must be.
<br />The flash flood of the Little Missouri River near Langley was a terrible anomaly. The water rose almost 20 feet in three hours in the dead of night. There was almost no chance to respond.
<br />The U.S. Geological Survey reported the river reached its highest peak since it began recording such date in 1988—“approximately 10 feet higher than the previous record.”
<br />The USGS also projected in the aftermath that there is only a 1 percent chance of a flood of this magnitude happening any given year at this place. That’s why such natural disasters are known as 100-year or century events.
<br />Without question, the probability of the flash flood was very small—but that provides no comfort when those odds turn against you.
<br />In the big picture, we may be lucky that we have not had to deal with many such tragedies, but nobody is feeling lucky right now.
<br />Numbers and records never tell the whole heartbreaking story of the grief and despair, and don’t speak to the emotional toll of family and friends, or to the emptiness and helplessness they feel.
<br />Worst tragedy ever? There is no contest.
<br />It’s the one you’re dealing with at the moment.
<br />It’s this one.
<br />On Friday, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, of Arkansas, submitted a statement for the Congressional Record about what happened at Camp Albert Pike, concluding, “Mr. President, I ask that we remember those who lost their lives in this tragic event.”
<br />She, fellow U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep. Mike Ross of Prescott are also asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service to make improvements to the emergency warning systems for campground visitors at Albert Pike.
<br />We need to do that, too, plus at least one other thing: There also needs to be an effort to create a permanent memorial at the site, lest any should forget this sad, sad day.