Spencer Dam Breach and Rescue: As Seen by O’Neill Fire & Rescue

O’NEILL, NE — O’Neill Fire Chief Terry Miles was ready for some flooding.  Going into last week he thought he’d fill some sandbags and inspect some basements… he didn’t think he’d execute a rescue rarely performed in the area and he didn’t think he see a north-central Nebraska landmark completely erased.

“We were expecting a little lowland flooding but as far as what happened up north, we were all kind of blindsided by the magnitude of it,” Miles said.

It was crisis.  A disaster of epic proportions.  The perfect storm powered the Niobrara River to record levels and burst the Spencer Dam, a 91-year-old landmark in North Central Nebraska.

“It’s just unbelievable that every point of reference there is gone – except the powerhouse,” Miles said.  “That whole valley is just wiped clean.  There’s nothing left.”

The river consumed everything.  It took the eyes of a local to point Miles to Angel’s Straw Bale Saloon.

“He made a point of reference to a tree,” Miles said.  “He said, ‘that’s where the bar was.’”

Water surrounded a house less than a quarter-mile from the dam on Thursday.  A stranded resident flashed his flashlight to signal to Miles and his crew who were surveying the river.

“By the grace of God his house didn’t go,” Miles said.  “Everything beyond that is gone.”

Miles says O’Neill first responders train for rope rescues but they are rarely performed.  You can’t train for what Miles saw Thursday.

“You see disasters on TV but to see the raw force of nature actually reclaiming its own territory… there’s no words for it,” Miles said.

Nature continues to reclaim some of its territory. Miles says about 150 feet of highway has crumbled away in the last two days, making the area near the dam still dangerous. Highway 281 near the former dam is barricaded by the Department of Transportation.