If you lived in southeastern Idaho at the time, you know where you were when news the Teton Dam had failed came over the radio June 5, 1976.

My dad, Frank Collins, and I were winding along the rural roads around Idaho Falls in his old Buick, collecting on my newspaper motor route. I was 17 years old.We couldn't figure out why the Snake River and the creeks were running so high. It had been a relatively dry year.

In Idaho Falls, the burst dam was for many people the most exciting thing that had happened in a long time. Contrary to national TV news reports at the time, Idaho Falls residents were never in danger - especially after the city fathers decided to blow out the Broadway bridge to minimize damage along that section of the Snake.

At one point, we heard CBS news announce that Idaho Falls, the biggest city close to the site of the disaster, was being evacuated. "Looks like they forgot us," my mom, Mary, quipped.

She spent most of the day doing laundry - everything in the house had to be clean and ready to go, just in case. In between, she took a dozen phone calls from friends and relatives scattered around the country. They'd seen the same news reports and wanted to be sure we were all right. My brother David called from Oregon. "Hang on, Mom," he said. "I'm coming to get you."

I think he planned to swoop down in a helicopter and pull us off the roof.

While we joked a little about what was going on, it was never very funny.

My mother was born and raised in the Teton-Newdale area, which is about 28 miles northeast of Idaho Falls. Her hometown rapidly became Flood Central. The people whose lives were devastated by the dam's failure included her school chums from Sugar-Salem High School, her brothers and their families, her neighbors and friends. The old family farm was there. My cousins lived in the water's path as it slammed through St. Anthony, Sugar City, Rexburg, Rigby and Roberts.

Those were not strangers fleeing that wall of water. They were my kin.

My cousin, Diana Richman, lives now where she lived then, on the south side of Teton, the end of town where the ground was a little higher.

The town of Teton didn't drown only because residents had been laying new water lines and "a backhoe happened to be there," she remembers. The canal that ran near the house where my mom was born was starting to flood when a farmer jumped on that backhoe and broke the canal bank open so the water backed into the river.

Many of the people in Teton and Sugar City were just settling in to watch a ball game on TV. Diana's daughters, home from college, were out on the lawn washing the car.

It was a powder-blue, nature-at-its-most-gorgeous day in southeastern Idaho.

A man drove through town with his window down, yelling at families to head to high ground.

Diana headed to Rexburg to find her only grandbaby.

Her son, Mike, and his wife had one baby and another on the way. Mike and his father stayed in Teton to fill milk cans with clean drinking water. Bert Richman knew the lay of the land and didn't think the water would hit their house. He was right.

Later that night, Bert and Diana would sit in their living room and watch a "gorgeous" sunset on what looked like an ocean less than two miles away. With field glasses, they could see houses floating.

Mike thought his house in Rexburg was probably safe, although he sent his wife and child with his mother to Ricks College, where people were congregating on high ground.

He was wrong.

Mike's house was near both a sawmill and a lumber yard. The logs were the battering rams with which the angry water slammed and pummeled the house. At one point, the house rose off its foundation. It went up, then crashed down again, finally teetering on the edge of its own front steps.

Like most disasters, it was randomly cruel and kind, hitting one thing and sparing another: A handful of houses survived in Sugar City, only that many destroyed in Teton. While his house was demolished, the diamond wedding ring of Mike's wife was still on the window sill where she'd placed it as she worked.

In the aftermath of the flood, my family would add one of our own to the death count, although it was not part of the disaster's official record.

My mother's brother Don, who had been ill, was distraught by the wreckage around him. He lived right there, between Teton and Newdale. He dropped dead on his way to his pickup truck, within three or four days of the disaster. We believe Death rode the flood to his door.

Many of the residents of Idaho Falls showed up to fill sandbags. We made sandwiches and handed out drinks as grit-covered workers labored. We didn't know what was going to happen. While the danger seemed to be just up the road a ways, the entire city wanted to be ready; water walls miles wide and 20 to 40 feet tall are frightening. Snippets of news from "upstream" were eagerly repeated up and down the sandbag line.

Later, those same people would join the salvage efforts. My friends and I pulled a drowned cow from behind a jewelry counter in a Rexburg department store. We found a dead pig in what had been the women's wear section. Cattle corpses were in store windows and basements.

Crews of 10 to 20 people to a house - many still in their teens - would heave buckets of mud out of doors and what had been windows. They had to place sandbags around the cleanup areas to keep the mud from pouring back in. And those were just the homes left standing.

Roads were rutted and boggy, impassable in spots. Farmland was wiped clean. The top layers of dirt were washed away.

A woman called my father, who was a piano tuner, and said they'd rescued their piano from atop a tree. Could he fix it?

Dozens of people wanted their sound boards dried out and "fixed" after days submerged. It couldn't be done.

Mostly, everyone wanted his or her life back. They wanted the gently rolling hills to once again have trees. They wanted the neat stacks of baled hay and the brightly painted barns to reappear. They wanted to see cattle and horses and pigs and sheep in the fields. But even the fields were gone.

They wanted to feel safe again.

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Most of them knew they never would.

Twenty years later, memories are vivid. Those two decades haven't dulled the pain for the father of a young man who drowned while fishing in the path of the dam's fury. He was one of the flood's few direct victims. Diana says a young man who spent 10 hours floating, trapped, in the middle of the cottonwood trees, still panics if he's in the shower and a blast of cold water hits him.

But the thing many residents remember best is how the bursting dam brought communities up and down its path together.

"The beauty of it all was what it did for people," Diana Richman says. "In disaster, people do work so beautifully together. Everyone helped, took people in, furnished food to people."

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