Some losses from the Red River flood immeasurable

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Photo on the monument
A granite marker commemorates the deaths of Pam and Victoria Wagner.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Main Street in Kent is dominated by a huge grain elevator. There's a scattering of homes and a few abandoned buildings.

On a block where the school once stood, there's a playground and a large granite marker with an etching that's nearly as detailed as a black and white photograph. It shows the faces of 29-year-old Pam Wagner and her three-year-old daughter Victoria.

"Pam was wonderful, always smiling and happy," says Jennifer Tschakert, a friend of Wagner's. "She wasn't one of those people who came to work grumpy all the time or you had to boost 'em to get 'em to do something. She had lots of energy. She was a great mom," Tschakert says. "Her daughter Tori was just a wonderful little girl and she loved everybody. She'd want hugs and kisses all around. We miss 'em."

Road closed
This highway near Kent is closed nearly every spring because of floodwater.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Tschakert was the last person to see Pam and Victoria Wagner alive that early April evening. They stopped at the bar Tschakert ran in Wolverton, about 10 miles from the Wagner home in Kent. Pam Wagner had worked at the bar while she went to school, but she quit about three months earlier when she became pregnant with her second child.

Tschakert says Pam stopped in almost every day on her way home from work. Victoria always wanted to stop at the bar because she knew she'd get a treat, a few hugs, and a visit with a stuffed animal named Rocky. Tschakert clearly remembers the final visit. Like every other day, Victoria made a beeline for Rocky.

"She went and got Rocky out of his little cubbyhole and gave him a hug," recalls Tschakert. "She gave hugs to everybody who was there and they had a pop and she gave me a hug and said 'Night, night,' to Rocky and tucked him back in and out the door they went."

The drive home that night was longer than usual because Kent was nearly surrounded by water from the Red River and Whiskey Creek. Pam Wagner's normal route home from work was flooded so she took a detour but along the way she made a wrong turn. Perhaps a sign tipped by floodwaters confused her, or maybe it was the darkness and unfamiliar gravel roads.

Jennifer Tschakert
Jennifer Tschakert was one of the last people to see 29-year-old Pam Wagner and her three-year-old daughter Victoria alive.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"They tried to take a township road that was underwater and they hit the water with the car and the car was submerged, but they happened to get out of the car," remembers Wilkin County Sheriff Tom Matejka.

"They they walked about a mile-and-a-quarter toward the lights of Kent and they didn't make it," says Matejka. "The Whiskey Creek was out of its banks and they couldn't cross it. Because they were wet and cold they ended up collapsing in the plowed field out there."

Pam Wagner carried her 3-year-old daughter Victoria about a mile-and-a-half across the field before they died of exposure in the freezing temperatures.

Rev. Stan Wieser was parish priest in Kent, and a friend of the Wagner family. The day after Pam and Victoria disappeared, Weiser searched for them with Pam Wagner's husband Ron. Late in the afternoon about a mile from the Wagner home they came upon a flooded road that had already been searched.

"We got down to the place and the sun was just right and we could see the glint, there was chrome reflecting and we went down to see what it was," says Wieser. "You could see where she realized her mistake and put on the brakes but the hill was icy and she slid. The car went in backwards. Going out with Ron and finding that car was the toughest experience of my life."

There were no bodies in the submerged car. Wieser feared they had been swept away by floodwater and would never be found. But searchers soon saw tracks in the mud leading away from the car, and a helicopter pilot spotted two frozen bodies in the field.

Fr. Stan Weiser
Rev. Stan Weiser calls finding the Wagner's submerged car the worst day of his life.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Sheriff Tom Matejka struggled to contain his emotion when talking to a reporter soon after recovering the bodies.

"She tried her best there, I'll tell you. She really had some determination to live and keep her daughter alive. It tugged at a lot of our hearts when we found them," said Matejka.

Even today, ten years later, the sheriff's eyes fill with tears as he talks about the deaths of Pam and Victoria Wagner. But the tragedy in Kent quickly faded as floodwaters rolled north and consumed Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Pam Wagner's friend Jennifer Tschakert is frustrated by the focus on property destroyed in the flood.

"I think it was on the news, on TV, that nobody had died. Yes, they did! People tend to forget. How can you forget? It makes me angry sometimes," says Tschakert. "I just want to stand up sometimes and go 'Yes, people did die!' I mean Ron lost everything in one fell swoop. His entire family was gone."

Tschakert can't forget because memories are all around her. The most visible is the marker with the faces of Pam and Victoria Wagner, immortalized in granite on the street corner in Kent.

"It's kind of bittersweet to see that every morning when I turn the corner to go to work, there's their faces smiling at me," says Tschakert.

Tom Matejka
Sheriff Tom Matejka says the deaths of Pam and Victoria Wagner were the greatest tragedy of the 1997 flood.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Tschakert says she hasn't been able to talk about Pam and Victoria in the past decade. It's still difficult, but she now thinks mostly about the happy memories.

Ron Wagner still has a hard time talking about that April day ten years ago when his pregnant wife and daughter died. He's moved away, survived cancer, remarried, and has two children. Wagner returns to Kent several times a year to visit the graves of his wife and daughter. His children play in the park dedicated to Pam and Victoria's memory.

Father Stan Wieser has moved away from Kent too. Since 1997 he marks spring by the depression that sets in early each April.

"There's no way you can say anything good came out of it that I know of. There's no sense pretending," says Wieser. "You just have to trust and understand the hope someday you can figure out what happened and why. It's a senseless tragedy."

History will remember the flood of 1997 for the billions of dollars in damage floodwaters caused as they swept across the Red River valley.

In the small town of Kent, two smiling faces on a granite marker tell a story of loss that can't be calculated.