Dickinson area no stranger to tragedyFor the 16,000 residents around Dickinson, tragedy seems a little too common for comfort. In little more than a year’s time, the headlines included a tornado that devastated half the city, a homicide, a murder-suicide and a gun battle involving escaped prison inmates from Alabama.
By: By Blake Nicholson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
DICKINSON, N.D. For the 16,000 residents around Dickinson, tragedy seems a little too common for comfort.
In little more than a year’s time, the headlines included a tornado that devastated half the city, a homicide, a murder-suicide and a gun battle involving escaped prison inmates from Alabama. And now the community is trying to heal again, after the deaths of three college softball players whose sport utility vehicle plunged into a pond in a pasture in the dark.
“We’ve had tragedies (around the region),” Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said. “This last year has kind of been busy for a lot of people.”
Dickinson officials say their community, helped by oil development over the past couple of years, has a lot to be positive about.
“I don’t think we’re jinxed,” said Mayor Dennis Johnson, who has been Dickinson’s mayor for nine of his 35 years in the city. “It has been a difficult year, no doubt about it ... but this is a resilient group in this community.
“We’re in an area of the country where the economy remains strong, where we still have jobs,” he said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”
Still, some residents are struggling.
Tammie Hendricks, whose family lost their home in the tornado, said she and her husband, CJ, and their three children have run into one problem after another while trying to find a new home, replace lost possessions and rebuild their lives. Now, her husband is being laid off from his job, she said, and they might be forced to leave the city.
In the midst of it all came news of the tragedy involving the Dickinson State University students.
“My husband is depressed, I’m depressed, my 12-year-old is depressed. It’s kind of affecting us all,” Hendricks said last week, breaking down in tears. “I’m so thankful that my kids are OK, because I don’t think I could handle any more.
“I feel for those families,” Hendricks said, referring to the parents of the college students. “It kind of makes you think, ‘A tornado. We were really lucky.”‘
Dickinson State softball players Kyrstin Gemar, 22, of San Diego; Afton Williamson, 20, of Lake Elsinore, Calif.; and Ashley Neufeld, 21, of Brandon, Manitoba, died after going out late Sunday on what authorities believe was a stargazing trip. Authorities say a preliminary autopsy report shows they drowned in a 10-foot deep pond used by livestock.
The bodies of the women and Neufeld’s dog were found inside the SUV on Tuesday, submerged in the pond. Prayer services were held on campus before and after the search. The university canceled classes for a day after the bodies were found, and held a memorial service Thursday that drew hundreds to the campus.
“This is a time when not only the campus but also the community of Dickinson and the area at large is coming together,” University President Richard McCallum said.
The women’s parents cited community support among the things helping them cope with the loss of their daughters.
“I can’t say enough about the community, the softball team, the university,” said Claire Gemar, Kyrstin’s mother.
McCallum said the university is making counselors available for faculty, students and staff as long as necessary. Tim Sauter, the regional director in Dickinson for the state Human Services department, said it is possible the Badlands Human Service Center might be seeing more young people from the university seeking help in the coming weeks.
Douglas Perkins, who has a doctorate in community psychology and founded the Center for Community Studies at Vanderbilt University, said most communities respond well to disasters unless their social support networks are destroyed.
Perkins said some residents might wonder if their community has a black cloud hanging over it but in most cases people find ways to cope, often turning to therapists or clergy.
“The one thing I would expect to happen ... it would leave people feeling vulnerable and they may turn to the faith community and come together that way to support each other,” he said.
The Rev. Steven Tangen, who is chairman of a local “unmet needs” committee set up after the tornado, said the college tragedy is the latest in a series of “grief experiences” that have left area residents sad, but not with any sense of hopelessness.
“The best therapy for this kind of grief is for people to get together for social occasions, sporting occasions. The biggest thing is for people to ask each other how they’re doing,” he said.
Tangen said clergy and professional therapists also have become more in tune to the lives of their clients and parishioners, and what messages they might be giving.
“What the community is going through is not over. The tornado issue isn’t over. The grief isn’t over,” he said. “We need to do a lot of listening.”
Mayor Johnson said Dickinson has been through difficult times before — particularly in the 1980s when the western North Dakota oil industry went bust — but never gave up.
“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Perkins, the Vanderbilt psychologist. “The same could perhaps be said at the community level.”